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The 25 Greatest Years in Hip Hop History

If we count hip hop’s official birthday as August 11th, 1973 – the same day DJ Kool Herc threw a block party at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx – it’s coming onto 50 years, practically still a baby.

And over the past few decades, hip hop has emerged as the number music genre and pop culture force. From music trends to production technique to slang to fashion, there is no music genre that has been as influential as hip hop in the past 50 years. Even though the culture has gone through a rollercoaster these past few decades, it’s still standing tall as the voice of the youth and the most exciting musical form right now.

So, to celebrate this culture’s beautifully rich and diverse history, we’re going to look at some of the greatest years over the past five decades. From the influential 1988 to the groundbreaking 1994 to the sheer quality of releases in 1996, here are the top 25 greatest years in hip hop history.

25. 2018 – “I am your Ghost and your Rae”

25 Greatest Years In Hip Hop History Daytona

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2018:

  1. Pusha T – DAYTONA
  2. Travis Scott – Astroworld
  3. Westside Gunn – Supreme Blientele
  4. Kids See Ghosts – KIDS SEE GHOSTS
  5. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter V
  6. Benny the Butcher – Tana Talk 3
  7. Freddie Gibbs – Freddie
  8. Noname – Room 25
  9. Jay Rock – Redemption
  10. Nipsey Hussle – Victory Lap

This was one of the greatest years for hip hop, with a great balance between huge commercial releases from Drake and Travis, as well as a slew of quality underground albums, spearheaded by the growing Griselda movement. In the midst of all this, we had Kanye back soul-sampling and chopping up the beats. The Wyoming sessions may have turned up some disappointing releases, but let’s not act like it wasn’t one of the most exciting times in hip hop history, especially with the Pusha vs. Drake beef in the middle of it all.

24. 2001 – “Watch out! We run New York”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Blueprint

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2001:

  1. Jay Z – The Blueprint
  2. Nas – Stillmatic
  3. Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein
  4. Masta Ace – Disposable Arts
  5. Jadakiss – Kiss tha Game Goodbye
  6. Beanie Sigel – The Reason
  7. Wu-Tang Clan – Iron Flag
  8. Ludacris – Word of Mouf
  9. Busta Rhymes – Genesis
  10. T.I. – I’m Serious

Nas may have exposed a chink in Hov’s armour, but was no toppling of the king that year. Both rappers returned with some of their best work to date, but The Blueprint was one of the best rap albums of the 2000s and cemented Hov’s legacy as one of the best rappers of all time . Meanwhile we had other New York rappers – Jadakiss and Beanie Sigel – making a name for themselves, while the South was starting to bubble up to the surface.

23. 1999 – “Still Snoop Dogg and D-R-E”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Dre 2001

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1999:

  1. Dr. Dre – 2001
  2. Mos Def – Black on Both Side s
  3. The Roots – Things Fall Apart
  4. Jay Z – Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter
  5. Eminem – The Slim Shady LP
  6. Mobb Deep – Murda Muzik
  7. Nas – I Am…
  8. Method Man & Redman – Blackout!
  9. DMX – … And Then There Was X
  10. Pharoahe Monch – Internal Affairs

The previous year hip hop saw Jay-Z emerge as the worthy heir to Biggie’s King of New York throne, and it was in ’99 where he cemented his position for the next five years. Inspired and re-energised by a white Detroit rapper he just signed, Dre made his comeback with 2001 ; Mobb Deep scored their first platinum album (thanks to “Quiet Storm”), and while Nas was on the decline artistically, I Am… still featured some of his best rapping to date.

22. 2003 – “They say I walk around like I got a ‘S’ on my chest”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Get Rich Or Die Tryin

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2003:

  1. 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’
  2. Outkast – Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
  3. Jay Z – The Black Album
  4. Ludacris – Chicken-n-Beer
  5. T.I. – Trap Muzik
  6. The Diplomats – Diplomatic Immunity
  7. Gang Starr – The Ownerz
  8. Canibus – Rip the Jacker
  9. Missy Elliott – This Is Not a Test!
  10. Aesop Rock – Bazooka Tooth

Jay-Z’s retirement and 50 Cent’s monumental debut album were the two big stories of 2003. Looking back on that year, it seems like rap fans tend to forget that OutKast dropped one of the most successful albums of all time; singles off Speakerboxxx/The Love Below were playing 24-7, and the album was certified diamond after moving 10 million units .

21. 2000 – “Come and have a good time with G-O-D”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Supreme Clientele

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2000:

  1. Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele
  2. Outkast – Stankonia
  3. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
  4. Common – Like Water for Chocolate
  5. Reflection Eternal – Train of Thought
  6. Jay-Z – The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
  7. Wu-Tang Clan – The W
  8. Jurassic 5 – Quality Control
  9. Mystikal – Let’s Get Ready
  10. M.O.P. – Warrior z

With the Wu-Tang on the downhill ever since Wu-Tang Forever , it was left up to Ghost to carry the torch with Supreme Clientele – one of the Clan’s best albums of all time. Following the success of The Slim Shady LP , Eminem upped the ante with his next release; while underground rappers like Common and Talib Kweli were holding up the banner for their Soulquarians movement.

20. 2015 – “Now I run the game, got the whole world talkin'”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 To Pimp

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2015:

  1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
  2. Drake – If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
  3. A$AP Rocky – AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP
  4. Future – DS2
  5. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
  6. Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt
  7. Dr. Dre – Compton
  8. Pusha T – King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude
  9. Meek Mill – Dreams Worth More Than Money
  10. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf

Kendrick has the best album of 2015, but Drake had the better year as a rapper. Not only did the OVO head honcho drop one of his best projects, he demolished Meek Mill in an exciting war of words and then wrapped up the year with a joint album with Future. Speaking of Future, after a legendary mixtape run that included Monster, Beast Mode and 56 Nights, he dropped his best album to date with DS2 .

19. 1997 – “Poppa been smooth since days of Underoos”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Life After Death

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1997:

  1. The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death
  2. Wu-Tang Clan – Wu-Tang Forever
  3. Capone-N-Noreaga – The War Report
  4. Puff Daddy & the Family – No Way Out
  5. Busta Rhymes – When Disaster Strikes…
  6. Mase – Harlem World
  7. Jay-Z – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1
  8. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – The Art Of War
  9. Master P – Ghetto D
  10. Common – One Day It’ll All Make Sense

Wu-Tang and Capone-N-Noreaga definitely held it down for grimy New York rap, but 1997 was all about Bad Boy. Between Big, Puffy and Mase, they had the charts sewn up for the entire year. In the shadows of his friend’s untimely death, Hov was plotting his way onto the charts with his second release.

18. 2011 – “Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Watch The Throne

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2011:

  1. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne
  2. Drake – Take Care
  3. Kendrick Lamar – Section.80
  4. The Roots – Undun
  5. A$AP Rocky – LIVE.LOVE.A$AP
  6. Danny Brown – XXX
  7. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter IV
  8. Wale – Ambition
  9. Tyler, The Creator – Goblin
  10. Saigon – The Greatest Story Never Told

2011 was a changing of the guard year. Looking back at it 10 years later, we saw the seeds of what would transform Kendrick, Drake, Cole, Rocky and Tyler into the stars they are today. But the older heads weren’t about to go without a fight – Jay-Z and Kanye still had what it took to hold down the throne, including enough of a budget to sample so much Otis Redding that they could say they featured the legendary soul singer.

17. 1991 – “Back in the days when I was a teenager”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Low End Theory

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1991:

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
  2. Ice Cube – Death Certificate
  3. De La Soul – De La Soul Is Dead
  4. Geto Boys – We Can’t Be Stopped
  5. Public Enemy – Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black
  6. DJ Quik – Quik Is the Name
  7. Gang Starr – Step in the Arena
  8. Main Source – Breaking Atoms
  9. Naughty by Nature – Naughty by Nature
  10. Cypress Hill – Cypress Hill

Two of the best rap albums dropped this year are polar opposites. On one hand we had the jazzy, down to earth Tribe who had an energised Phife Dawg in the corner, and on the other hand, we had Ice Cube, the angriest rapper alive dropping his sophomore, which was even better than his classic debut and better than anything he did with N.W.A.

16. 2013 – “Yeezy season approachin'”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Yeezus

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2013:

  1. Kanye West – Yeezus
  2. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name
  3. Drake – Nothing Was the Same
  4. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
  5. ASAP Rocky – LONG.LIVE.A$AP
  6. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
  7. Danny Brown – Old
  8. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris
  9. Mac Miller – Watching Movies with the Sound Off
  10. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2

Drake was the man in 2013, but he still had to compete with the likes of older rappers like Kanye and Eminem, who dropped a worthy sequel to his 2000 classic. Meanwhile Pusha T proved to the world that he could make great music without his brother, though having production from Kanye and The Neptunes definitely helped. In the middle of all this, an Atlanta rapper and an underground Brooklyn artist decided to join forces to under the banner Run the Jewels.

15. 2002 – “Playas we ain’t the same”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Lord Willin

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2002:

  1. Clipse – Lord Willin’
  2. Eminem – The Eminem Show
  3. Nas – The Lost Tapes
  4. Scarface – The Fix
  5. The Roots – Phrenology
  6. Nas – God’s Son
  7. Nelly – Nellyville
  8. Talib Kweli – Quality
  9. Styles P – A Gangster and a Gentleman
  10. Missy Elliott – Under Construction

If people thought Eminem couldn’t top the success of The Marshall Mathers LP , he sure did prove them wrong with The Eminem Show one of the best selling rap albums of all time . Rejuvenated by his battle with Jay-Z, Nas continued his streak with the incredible God’s Son , and meanwhile in Virginia, lunch tables were starting to ring off with “Grindin'”.

14. 1990 – “You gotta deal with the nine-double-M”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Amerikkka Most Wanted

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1990:

  1. Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted
  2. A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
  3. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet
  4. LL Cool J – Mama Said Knock You Out
  5. Eric B. & Rakim – Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em
  6. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – Wanted: Dead or Alive
  7. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising
  8. Brand Nubian – One for All
  9. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – Wanted: Dead or Alive
  10. Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth – Funky Technician

A landmark year for alternative hip hop. With Ice Cube, Chuck D and LL booming over dense, funky James Brown samples, a new crop of rappers were coming from a different angle – Tribe, De La Soul and Brand Nubian all dropped highly influential, classic albums to inspire a whole movement of alternative and underground rappers in the coming decades.

12. 2017 – “If I quit this season, I still be the greatest, funk”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Damn

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2017:

  1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
  2. Jay-Z – 4:44
  3. Migos – Culture
  4. Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
  5. Future – Hndrxx
  6. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
  7. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom
  8. Big Sean – I Decided.
  9. Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls
  10. Lil Uzi Vert – Luv Is Rage 2

Fuelled by No I.D.’s golden age production, Jay-Z dropped one of his best albums ever with the deeply personal and concise 4:44 . After a few years of start-stop momentum, Migos finally put all the pieces together and delivered a trap masterpiece; at the time that Young Thug was doing country rap way before Lil Nas X was thinking of it. And of course, Kendrick Lamar, the best rapper alive, dropped an album that would earn him a Pulitzer Prize .

11. 1986 – “Now Peter Piper picked peppers, but Run rocked rhymes”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Raising Hell

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1986:

  1. Run-D.M.C. – Raising Hell
  2. Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill
  3. Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force – Planet Rock: The Album
  4. Kool Moe Dee – Kool Moe Dee
  5. Stetsasonic – On Fire
  6. Too $hort – Raw, Uncut and X-Rated
  7. Salt-N-Pepa – Hot, Cool & Vicious
  8. Just-Ice – Back to the Old School
  9. The Fat Boys – Big & Beautiful
  10. Schoolly D – Saturday Night! – The Album

Most of the albums in this year haven’t aged very well, but you can definitely hear the seeds of what would influence the next five years of hip hop. Commercially speaking, 1986 was a landmark year for hip hop, Raising Hell was rap’s first album to be certified platinum , while Licensed to Ill was the first to top the Billboard charts.

10. 2006 – “Upon my arrival, the dope dealers cheer him”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Hell Hath No Fury

Top 10 best rap albums released in 2006:

  1. Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury
  2. Ghostface Killah – Fishscale
  3. T.I. – King
  4. Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor
  5. The Roots – Game Theory
  6. Young Jeezy – The Inspiration
  7. Nas – Hip Hop Is Dead
  8. J Dilla – Donuts
  9. OutKast – Idlewild
  10. The Game – Doctor’s Advocate

Coke rap has never as good as it did in 2006. Between the Clipse, Ghostface and Jeezy; you had three different energies from three different regions, all approaching the topic differently, but coming to the same result: classic music. While all this was happening, T.I. ascended to the King of the South throne, accompanied by the blaring “What You Know” march courtesy of DJ Toomp.

9. 1992 – “Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 The Chronic

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1992:

  1. Dr. Dre – The Chronic
  2. Pete Rock & CL Smooth – Mecca and the Soul Brother
  3. Redman – Whut? Thee Album
  4. Gang Starr – Daily Operation
  5. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
  6. Boogie Down Productions – Sex and Violence
  7. Arrested Development – 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of…
  8. Ice Cube – The Predator
  9. DJ Quik – Way 2 Fonky
  10. EPMD – Business Never Personal

In 1992, we were blessed with two of the best produced rap albums of all time – on the West Coast, Dr. Dre’s groundbreaking debut, and on the East, Pete Rock’s jazzy, horn-rich Mecca and the Soul Brother would go on to influence the likes of Kanye and J Dilla. EPMD also found a star in Redman, who dropped his funky fresh debut.

8. 1998 – “Old school players to new school fools”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Aquemini

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1998:

  1. OutKast – Aquemini
  2. DMX – It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot
  3. Jay Z – Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
  4. Gang Starr – Moment of Truth
  5. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
  6. Jurassic 5 – Jurassic 5
  7. DMX – Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood
  8. A Tribe Called Quest – The Love Movement
  9. Juvenile – 400 Degreez
  10. Beastie Boys – Hello Nasty

Two classics from DMX, Jay-Z’s most successful album, OutKast’s richest and most diverse album, and Lauryn Hill’s masterpiece debut. Rap music doesn’t get much better than it did in 1998.

7. 1989 – “One, and here comes the two to the three and four”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Doc

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1989:

  1. The D.O.C. – No One Can Do It Better
  2. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising
  3. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique
  4. Big Daddy Kane – It’s a Big Daddy Thing
  5. Biz Markie – The Biz Never Sleeps
  6. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – Road to the Riches
  7. EPMD – Unfinished Business
  8. Geto Boys – Grip It! On That Other Level
  9. Ice-T – The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech… Just Watch What You Say!
  10. Queen Latifah – All Hail the Queen

With the landmark albums dropped and innovative trends set the year prior, 1989 was the year where hip hop continued to expand, twisting and turning into little nooks and crannies that would eventually create a sprawling tapestry of rich, diverse sounds from different regions.

6. 1987 – “It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Paid In Full

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1987:

  1. Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full
  2. Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded
  3. LL Cool J – Bigger and Deffer
  4. Ice-T – Rhyme Pays
  5. Public Enemy – Yo! Bum Rush the Show
  6. Kool Moe Dee – How Ya Like Me Now
  7. Just-Ice – Kool & Deadly
  8. MC Shan – Down by Law
  9. Heavy D & the Boyz – Living Large
  10. T La Rock – Lyrical King (From the Boogie Down Bronx)

While old school staples like Kool Moe Dee and MC Shan were holding it down with strong releases, 1987 was the year where rap took it to the next level, with production and the art of rhyming reaching new heights on Paid in Full and lyrical content steering away from the usual partying themes and more towards reality rap, courtesy of KRS-One and Ice-T.

5. 1996 – “I ain’t a killer, but don’t push me”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Makaveli

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1996:

  1. Tupac Shakur (as Makaveli) – The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory
  2. Fugees – The Score
  3. Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt
  4. OutKast – ATLiens
  5. 2Pac – All Eyez on Me
  6. Nas – It Was Written
  7. Mobb Deep – Hell on Earth
  8. Kool Keith – Dr. Octagonecologyst
  9. Redman – Muddy Waters
  10. De La Soul – Stakes Is High

Hip hop was never the same after 1996. With two classic albums from Pac, his music would go to influence generations of rappers after his death; Jay-Z quietly dropped his debut (no one in hip hop could anticipate the heights he would reach); and with the guidance of Steve Stoute, Nas would take his rap career in an entirely new direction.

4. 1995 – “I got you stuck off the realness”

Greatest Three Album Runs In Hip Hop History Mobb Deep

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1995:

  1. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
  2. Mobb Deep – The Infamous
  3. 2Pac – Me Against the World
  4. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
  5. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – E. 1999 Eternal
  6. GZA – Liquid Swords
  7. The Roots – Do You Want More?!!!??!
  8. Tha Dogg Pound – Dogg Food
  9. Goodie Mob – Soul Food
  10. Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous

Even with classic albums from West Coast’s 2Pac and Tha Dogg Pound, and Goodie Mob continuing the streak started by OutKast; 1995 was all about New York. Raekwon’s Purple Tape , Big L spazzing out on his debut album, Wu-Tang takeover, “Shook Ones” – 1995 was arguably the greatest year for New York hip hop.

3. 1993 – “Wu-Tang again? Ah, yeah, again and again.”

Best Hip Hop Album Every Year Since 1986 Enter The Wu Tang

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1993:

  1. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
  2. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders
  3. Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle
  4. KRS-One – Return of the Boom Bap
  5. Cypress Hill – Black Sunday
  6. Black Moon – Enta da Stage
  7. Naughty by Nature – 19 Naughty III
  8. Onyx – Bacdafucup
  9. Eazy-E – It’s On ( Dr. Dre ) 187 um Killa
  10. De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate

Never mind we had a whole bunch of classic albums drop in ’93, on November 9 alone we had Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Midnight Marauders drop. On the same day! Then a few weeks later, Snoop Dogg dropped Doggystyle . Greatest month in hip hop? I think so!

2. 1994 – “I don’t know how to start this shit”

25 Greatest Years In Hip Hop History Illmatic

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1994:

  1. Nas – Illmatic
  2. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die
  3. OutKast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik
  4. Scarface – The Diary
  5. Gang Starr – Hard to Earn
  6. Jeru the Damaja – The Sun Rises in the East
  7. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication
  8. O.C. – Word…Life
  9. Warren G – Regulate… G Funk Era
  10. Method Man – Tical

Just try to wrap your mind around the fact that in ’94 we had two of the greatest rappers of all time drop their debuts, just months apart from each other. Then add in the fact that the South dropped two classics of their own, with OutKast and Scarface, then to top it all off, Warren G damn near saved Def Jam with his own album.

1. 1988 – “Bass! How low can you go?”

25 Greatest Years In Hip Hop History Public Enemy It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Top 10 best rap albums released in 1988:

  1. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
  2. Slick Rick – The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
  3. Boogie Down Productions – By All Means Necessary
  4. EPMD – Strictly Business
  5. Big Daddy Kane – Long Live the Kane
  6. N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton
  7. Eric B. & Rakim – Follow the Leader
  8. Ice-T – Power
  9. Ultramagnetic MC’s – Critical Beatdown
  10. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince – He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper

The greatest hip hop year of all time, and the most influential hip hop year of all time. In just these 10 albums listed above (let alone the rest of the year), you can see the seeds of what hip hop would become in the next 30 years. You can trace the lineage of artists like Nas, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick, Wu-Tang, 2Pac, Biggie, and hundreds of others, to this very year.

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