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The debut album holds a special place in hip hop culture. How many artists produced their best work with their first album? How many of them spent a whole career with their debut casting a long shadow over their music?

From Nas to Jay-Z, Ice Cube to Snoop Dogg, Rakim to Big Daddy Kane, we take a look at the 50 greatest hip hop debut albums of all time.

Related:

Honourable mentions:

2Pac – 2Pacalypse Now

Released: November 12, 1991

Label: Interscope

Is it their best album? Absolutely not. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…, Me Against the World, All Eyez on Me and The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory are all superior to this album.

Benny the Butcher – Tana Talk 3

Released: November 23, 2018

Label: Griselda, Black Soprano Family

Is it their best album? Tana Talk 3 is Benny’s best album to date, but I have a feeling that it won’t be for long. It sounds like the Butcher is cooking up another masterpiece.

Busta Rhymes – The Coming

Released: March 26, 1996

Label: Elektra

Is it their best album? The Coming is pretty fucking great, but I might have to go with When Disaster Strikes… and Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front over it.

Travis Scott – Rodeo

Released: September 4, 2015

Label: Grand Hustle, Epic

Is it their best album? There’s an argument for it, although I personally lean towards Astroworld. If we’re counting mixtapes as well, then Days Before Rodeo will always be my favourite Travis Scott project.

Pharoahe Monch – Internal Affairs

Released: October 19, 1999

Label: Rawkus, Priority

Is it their best album? Yes, as a solo artist. Don’t sleep on Organized Konfusion though.

Rick Ross – Port of Miami

Released: August 8, 2006

Label: Slip-n-Slide, Def Jam, Poe Boy

Is it their best album? Personally, my vote would be for Teflon Don, but you could make a strong case for Port of Miami.

Smif-N-Wessun – Dah Shinin’

Released: January 10, 1995

Label: Wreck, Nervous

Is it their best album? Yes, definitely.

Gang Starr – No More Mr. Nice Guy

Released: April 22, 1989

Label: Wild Pitch Records, EMI Records

Is it their best album? No, far from it. Pick any other Gang Starr album – Step in the Arena, Hard to Earn or Moment of Truth – and it’ll be a stronger album than their debut.

Compton’s Most Wanted – It’s a Compton Thang

Released: June 19, 1990

Label: Orpheus Records

Is it their best album? I would say Music to Driveby.

Three 6 Mafia – Mystic Stylez

Released: May 30, 1995

Label: Prophet

Is it their best album? Mystic Stylez is a great starting point into the Three 6 Mafia catalogue, but I think an album like Chapter 1: The End or Chapter 2: World Domination is a better pick.

T.I. – I’m Serious

Released: October 9, 2001

Label: Arista

Is it their best album? T.I. shows a lot of potential on I’m Serious, but the album’s quality is still far from what would be Trap Muzik, King or Paper Trail.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – Creepin on ah Come Up

Released: June 21, 1994

Label: Ruthless, Relativity

Is it their best album? Technically Creepin on ah Come Up is Bone’s debut EP, but whatever. Is it their best album? I think E. 1999 Eternal edges it slightly.

Black Moon – Enta da Stage

Released: October 19, 1993

Label: Nervous

Is it their best album? Yeap, Enta da Stage is a straight up golden age classic and one of the albums responsible for bringing the East Coast back when the West Coast had it on lock.

Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill

Released: November 15, 1986

Label: Def Jam, Columbia

Is it their best album? Yeah, it’ll have to be between this and Paul’s Boutique. Don’t sleep on Check Your Headthough.

Redman – Whut? Thee Album

Released: September 22, 1992

Label: Rush, Chaos

Is it their best album? You can definitely make an argument for Reggie’s debut being his best album, but Muddy Waters would also be a strong contender.

Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly

Released: July 15, 1997

Label: The Goldmind, Elektra

Is it their best album? Yeap, I think so.

Tyler, the Creator – Goblin

Released: May 10, 2011

Label: XL

Is it their best album? No, Tyler, the Creator has had one of the greatest evolutions of a hip hop artist we’ve ever seen, continuing to push the boundaries of his style and innovating with every release. You’ll have to go with Flower BoyIgor, or his latest album, Call Me If You Get Lost.

AZ – Doe or Die

Released: October 10, 1995

Label: EMI

Is it their best album? Even despite dropping a number of great albums over the years, AZ has never managed to touch the magic of Doe or Die.

50. UGK – Too Hard to Swallow

Released: November 10, 1992

Label: Jive

Is it their best album? No, that would be 1996’s Ridin’ Dirty, which happens to one of the best third hip hop albums of all time.

49. Big Pun – Capital Punishment

Released: April 28, 1998

Label: BMG, RCA, Loud, Terror Squad

Is it their best album? Yes

48. Goodie Mob – Soul Food

Released: November 7, 1995

Label: LaFace

Is it their best album? Absolutely.

47. Talib Kweli – Quality

Released: November 19, 2002

Label: Rawkus

Is it their best album? As a solo artist, probably. But Talib Kweli also has his Reflection Eternal and Black Star under the belt too.

46. Big L –Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous

Released: March 28, 1995

Label: Columbia

Is it their best album? Yes, no doubt.

43. Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon: The End of Day

Released: September 15, 2009

Label: Dream On, GOOD, Universal, Motown

Is it their best album? Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon trilogy is incredible, but I still think the first one tops them all.

44. A$AP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP

Released: January 15, 2013

Label: ASAP Worldwide, Polo Grounds, RCA

Is it their best album? LONG.LIVE.A$AP is really fucking good. AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP might just be a little bit better. Rocky really has one of the best catalogues of the rappers in his generation.

43. Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

Released: September 29, 1998

Label: Rawkus, Priority, EMI, MCA, Universal

Is it their best album? Sadly yes, their best and only album as Black Star.

42. Puff Daddy – No Way Out

Released: July 22, 1997

Label: Arista, Bad Boy

Is it their best album? “Victory”, “Young G’s”, “It’s All About the Benjamins”, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”, what other Puffy album has songs that stack up against these ones?

41. The Game – The Documentary

Released: January 18, 2005

Label: Aftermath, G-Unit, Black Wall Street, Interscope

Is it their best album? Yes, but Doctor’s Advocate is a close second. Also, Game is a low-key super consistent rapper.

40. Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth – Funky Technician

Released: February 6, 1990

Label: Wild Pitch, EMI Records

Is it their best album? Yeap.

39. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde

Released: November 24, 1992

Label: Delicious Vinyl, EastWest

Is it their best album? Really tough between this album and Labcabincalifornia. Both are classics, although Labcabincalifornia has some incredible J Dilla production. Depends on your mood that day.

38. Ghostface Killah – Ironman

Released: October 29, 1996

Label: Epic, Razor Sharp

Is it their best album? No, Supreme Clientele is Ghost’s best album.

37. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80

Released: July 2, 2011

Label:

Is it their best album? When we put together our list for the best hip hop albums of the 2010s, Kendrick took up 3 of the top 10 spots, with DAMN., To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city, so it’s probably one of those ones that deserve the honour.

36. Big Daddy Kane – Long Live the Kane

Released: June 21, 1988

Label: Cold Chillin’, Warner Bros.

Is it their best album? Kane put out two classics in back-to-back years – his debut and It’s a Big Daddy Thing. Both are incredible and you can take your pick.

35. Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor

Released: September 19, 2006

Label: 1st & 15th, Atlantic

Is it their best album? Personally, I prefer The Cool, but I see the argument for Food & Liquor as Lupe’s best album.

34. LL Cool J – Radio

Released: November 18, 1985

Label: Def Jam, Columbia

Is it their best album? Nope, that would be Mama Said Knock You Out.

33. DMX – It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot

Released: May 19, 1998

Label: PolyGram, Def Jam, Ruff Ryders

Is it their best album? DMX dropped of his best albums in the same year – this one and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Take your pick.

32. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

Released: June 26, 2013

Label: Fool’s Gold, Big Dada

Is it their best album? This was an incredible debut, but I’ll have to lean towards Run the Jewels 2 as being their best album.

31. Ultramagnetic MCs – Critical Beatdown

Released: October 4, 1988

Label: Next Plateau

Is it their best album? Absolutely, this is a golden age classic, and one of the most slept-on rap albums ever.

30. Westside Gunn – Flygod

Released: March 11, 2016

Label: Griselda Records

Is it their best album? It’s between Flygod and Supreme Blientele. 50-50 pick.

29. Clipse – Lord Willin’

Released: August 20, 2002

Label: Star Trak, Arista

Is it their best album? As much as I love this album, nothing will ever top Hell Hath No Fury, one of the best hip hop albums of the 2000s.

28. DJ Quik – Quik Is the Name

Released: January 15, 1991

Label: Profile

Is it their best album? DJ Quik has one of the most slept-on catalogues, and is an incredibly underrated hip hop producer. The man has dropped classic albums across multiple decades, and while I prefer his 2009 collaboration album with Kurupt, Blaqkout, you can definitely consider Quik Is the Name to be his best album.

27. Run-D.M.C. – Run-D.M.C.

Released: March 27, 1984

Label: Arista

Is it their best album? Run-D.M.C. is a goddamn masterpiece and one of the most influential rap albums ever dropped, but Raising Hell is undisputedly the group’s magnum opus.

26. Scarface – Mr. Scarface Is Back

Released: October 8, 1991

Label: Rap-A-Lot, Priority, EMI

Is it their best album? I would say either the The Diary or The Fix is Scarface’s best album.

25. EPMD – Strictly Business

Released: June 7, 1988

Label: Fresh, Sleeping Bag

Is it their best album? Hell yeah!

24. A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm

Released: April 10, 1990

Label: Jive, RCA Records

Is it their best album? No way. That would be The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders. I would even put We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service above Tribe’s debut.

23. Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded

Released: March 3, 1987

Label: B-Boy

Is it their best album? Boogie Down Productions’ catalogue is insane, with five straight classics dropped in about as many years. It’s between Criminal Minded and By All Means Necessary in my opinion.

22. Pete Rock & CL Smooth – Mecca and the Soul Brother

Released: June 9, 1992

Label: Elektra

Is it their best album? Don’t shoot me, but I actually think The Main Ingredient is a better overall album. Obviously there’s nothing on that album that comes close to the sonic perfection of “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” though.

21. Slick Rick – The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Released: November 1, 1988

Label: Def Jam, Columbia

Is it their best album? Absolutely.

20. Young Jeezy – Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101

Released: July 26, 2005

Label: Corporate Thugz, Def Jam

Is it their best album? It’s Jeezy’s best album; it’s also a top five trap album of all time; and one of the greatest rap albums to come out of the South.

19. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising

Released: March 3, 1989

Label: Tommy Boy

Is it their best album? I don’t know. 3 Feet High and Rising is really fucking good. But so is De La Soul Is Dead. And Buhloone Mindstate. And Stakes Is High. I don’t know.

18. Kanye West – The College Dropout

Released: February 10, 2004

Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam

Is it their best album? No, it’s probably his most loved album, but The College Dropout is like fourth in our rankings of Kanye albums, behind Yeezus, Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

17. The D.O.C. – No One Can Do It Better

Released: August 1, 1989

Label: Ruthless, Atlantic

Is it their best album? Sadly, yes.

16. Mos Def – Black on Both Sides

Released: October 12, 1999

Label: Rawkus, Priority

Is it their best album? Black on Both Sides was one of the best hip hop albums to come out of the ’90s, but I think The Ecstatic is the best Mos Def album.

15. MF Doom – Operation: Doomsday

Released: October 19, 1999

Label: Fondle ‘Em

Is it their best album? No, I would put Madvillainy over this.

14. Blu & Exile – Below the Heavens

Released: July 17, 2007

Label: Sound in Color

Is it their best album? Name a more consistent duo than Blu & Exile, but you can’t say OutKast. Below the Heavens is a classic and their best album, but goddamn every one of their projects is incredible. Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, Miles: From an Interlude Called Life, even the leftover tracks on In the Beginning: Before the Heavens are all amazing.

13. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Released: August 25, 1998

Label: Ruffhouse, Columbia

Is it their best album? Yeap.

12. 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’

Released: February 6, 2003

Label: Shady, Aftermath, Interscope

Is it their best album? No doubt about it.

11. OutKast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

Released: April 26, 1994

Label: LaFace, Arista

Is it their best album? I love, love, love Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. But I think OutKast’s best album is a toss-up between ATLiens, Aquemini and Stankonia.

10. Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt

Released: June 25, 1996

Label: Roc-A-Fella, Priority

Is it their best album? Yes, but it’s got really tough competition from The Blueprint and The Black Album.

9. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die

Released: September 13, 1994

Label: Bad Boy, Arista

Is it their best album? No, as good as Ready to Die is, Life After Death was just a level above it in every way possible – the production, the rapping, the songwriting, the scope.

8. Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle

Released: November 23, 1993

Label: Death Row, Interscope

Is it their best album? Absolutely, Snoop has never managed to come close to how good this album is over his three decade long career.

7. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…

Released: August 1, 1995

Label: Loud, RCA

Is it their best album? Absolutely.

6. Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full

Released: July 7, 1987

Label: 4th & B’way, Island

Is it their best album? Follow the Leader and Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em probably had better rapping and production if you listen closely, but Paid in Full was just such a statement and it basically changed the landscape of rhyming forever.

5. N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton

Released: August 8, 1988

Label: Ruthless, Priority

Is it their best album? Of course.

4. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Released: November 9, 1993

Label: Loud

Is it their best album? Definitely. Wu-Tang Forever could have come close if it was trimmed down to about 13-14 tracks.

3. Dr. Dre – The Chronic

Released: December 15, 1992

Label: Death Row, Interscope

Is it their best album? Yes. 2001 was an incredible follow-up album, but the second half of that project just didn’t hit the same as the first.

2. Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted

Released: May 16, 1990

Label: Lench Mob, Priority

Is it their best album? It’s a really tough match-up between Cube’s debut and Death Certificate.

1. Nas – Illmatic

Released: April 19, 1994

Label: Columbia

Is it their best album? When hip hop heads think about debut albums casting a shadow over a rapper’s career, they’re usually thinking about Nas. There’s no other artist in rap history that has had an album of theirs follow them around like Nas and Illmatic. The Queensbridge legend has dropped a handful of classic albums over his career – It Was Written, Stillmatic, God’s Son, The Lost Tapes, Life Is Good – but they don’t come close to the perfection that was his debut.

55 comments
  1. Mannn… I want to argue that Ready to Die is at least #2, but it’s hard to beef with the top 10. I think it comes down to preference at that point. For me, Ready to Die is at #2. I’d slide Cube back to #9. Jay at #8, Snoop at #10.

    This is a good list though. Thanks y’all.

  2. Ummm, IT TAKES A NATION OF.MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK? It had more people turned on to Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam, 5 Percenters, Black conscioisness, and Black power than ANY hip hop album EVER! And Fight the Power was an anthem. The exclusion of this album from the top 10 is debatable, from the top 50, is SACRELIGIOUS and BLASPHEMOUS! IJS….

  3. Dope list!! One mistake though, the Fugees debut album was actually Blunted in Reality, not the Score. I would love to see a list of the dopest albums from 99’s underground artist.

  4. 2pac the greatest rapper of all time did not even made the list. Dude you’re out of your mind, you really don’t know hip-hop. “Me against the world” should be 1st put nas at 2.

  5. Uhhhhhhh…. The Score was not The Fugees debut album. It was their sophomore album
    Blunted On Reality was the debut 🤦🏽‍♂️

  6. Section 8.0 is a mixtape. Kendricks debut album would be good kid maad city. Nice article. A summary / analysis / review of the albums would’ve made it perfect.

  7. Creepin’ on ah Come Up? How does that not make this list? I am not saying Bone Thugs is greater than the other prime late 90’s groups. But their sales, radio play and influence is on par during that time with any other group. The whole Midwest just got left off this list.

  8. Two main issues with this list- First, The Score is no doubt the Fugees best work, but not a debut. Blunted on Reality dropped two years prior. Second, that’s s pretty hard diss of People’s Instinctive Paths. The best Tribe album is a toss up between the first three. Their debut belongs in that conversation.

    But also, shoutout for mentioning The Ecstatic. That’s a dope album and doesn’t really get talked about.

  9. Very disrespectful list.
    1st Straight out of Compton isn’t Nwa first album, the first one had a I gotta fat girl in my Jock, and I think a bitch is a bitch. Either way it’s Nwa & the Compton Posse.
    2.
    No Eazy duz it classic
    8ball and MJG-Coming out Hard classic
    Spice one-Spice 1 classic as fuck
    Goodie Mob-Soul food classic
    Geto Boys-Grip it on another level classic
    A voice the law-Living like hustles classic
    Beasrie Boyz- License to I’ll classic
    2 live crew -Live is what we are classic
    Top Authority- something to blaze to classic
    Dj Quik- Quik is the name classic
    Drake -so far gone classic
    Future-pluto classic bangers after banger
    Port of Miami
    2pacalyspe now
    Doe or Die
    Yall Ate all the NY dick on this one and omitted verified classic debuts from West coast and Southern artists as usual

  10. The Score is not the Fugees 1st album!!!
    It was Blunted on Reality…. let me know if you guys need help with your hip hop history… lol

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