While not as prestigious as The Source’s Five Mics an “XXL” rating is a pretty big deal.
XXL Magazine has only given 22 albums a perfect “XXL” rating. Kendrick Lamar became the latest to earn the honor with good kid, m.A.A.d city. Officially anointing it a classic.
That made me think. How do these 22 classic XXL albums stack up against each other? Because I love hip-hop music, love ranking things and love forcing my opinions on others as fact, I decided I had to do this.
No fancy Nate Silver logarithms. No internet polls. No Metacritic orgy of reviewer scoring. Just me, listening to each album from start to finish and ranking them from least classic to more classic to classicest.
Now for the list.
Note: If you’ve read any of this blog before you know I’m a pretty bias person. I tried to take the bias out of my rankings, but I’m not promising anything.
T H E L I S T
Tier VI – The Fringe Classics
22. Life is Good – Nas (2012)
“I wrote this piece for closure”
Why it’s a classic: Nas is one of the four or five best rappers alive. At 40 (or 140 in rapper years), Nas is far from the 20 year old wunderkind he was when he released Illmatic, but even at his advanced age he’s still lyrically sharper than most. Life is Good works effectively as a retrospective: Nas all grown up. He delves into his failed marriage, fatherhood and all around nostalgia for hip-hop’s Golden Age. Think the last scene of a TV series when the main character looks around, montages, smiles, turns off the lights and leaves. That’s Life is Good.
Why it ranks where it ranks: It’s not Nas’ best, second best or arguably even his third best. He’s still 40 in a young man’s game and the album never rises to WOW status, there’s no single track that make you stop whatever you’re doing and just vibe out.
Trademark Track: Cherry Wine
21. The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory –
Tupac Makaveli (1996)
“Brothas getting shot, comin’ back resurrected”
Why it’s a classic: Makaveli AKA Tupac is an absolute rottweiler on this. You know the “angry black male” stereotype, well 2pac takes that to a whole new level. He takes shots at Nas, Mobb Deep, Jay-Z, Dr, Dre and, of course, Biggie. It’s the epitome of East coast vs West coast. The 7 Day Theory was recorded two months before Pac was shot and listening to the album, it sounds like he knew it was just a matter of time.
Why it ranks where it ranks: I have a theory that posthumously released works are almost always overrated. I don’t think it’s bad, I just think it’s a little overrated.
Trademark Track: Hail Mary
20. The Diary – Scarface (1994)
“I see some motherfucking ‘Gs'”
Why it’s a classic: H-Town’s in the house. This is deep fried southern rap smothered in gravy served with a biscuit on the side. Scarface employs his thick, heavy, slowed down flow while rapping about gangster violence with surprising thoughtfulness. He also says “motherfucker” more than anyone you’ve ever heard in your life.
Why it ranks where it ranks: Their are no valleys on this album but the highs just aren’t high enough when comparing it to 22 other classic albums.
Trademark Track: Hand of the Dead Body
19. Hell Hath No Fury – Clipse (2006)
“Young, restless, talk so reckless”
Why it’s a classic: Back before Pusha T was BFFLs with Kanye, Pusha and his bro (Malice) were the top coke rappers in the game. Hell Hath No Fury blends The Neptunes blinged out sound with Clipse’s (and especially Pusha’s) unflinching flow. The juxtaposition between the glossy production and gritty lyricism make Hell Hath No Fury one of the best hip-hop albums in recent memory. The Neptunes deserve equal credit to that of Clipse on this album, their deep and intricate sound drives each track.
Why it ranks where it ranks: Malice and Pusha aren’t the other rappers on the list. It’s as simple as that.
Trademark Track: Trill
Tier V – The Classically Average Classics (undoubtedly classic, just average by classic’s standards)
18. 2001 – Dr. Dre (1999)
“Haters say Dre fell off, how nigga? My last album was The Chronic”
Why it’s a classic: Dre’s first solo album, The Chronic, was released in 1992, seven years later Dre released his second album, 2001, and basically just ran it back. Fat G-funk beats, a bunch of Snoop features and a lot of west coast gangster sensibilities. Dre added his new protege Eminem to a few tracks (some of the best tracks) and finished the album with The Message a very sentimental, very out of character track for Dre.
Why it ranks where it ranks: Sequels rarely live up to the original. It needs more Snoop. It needs more Em. There’s too much filler and the beats aren’t as fat as their predecessor.
Trademark Track: Still D.R.E.
17. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ – 50 Cent (2003)
“If David could go against Goliath with a stone, I can go at Nas and Jay-Z both for the throne”
Why it’s a classic: GRoDT is the Die Hard of hip-hop albums. It is more a favorite than a masterpiece. When Die Hard comes on TV I’m cancelling all my plans for the next two hours and watching it from start to finish (if Die Hard comes on a half hour before my wedding, the wedding will be postponed). When a GRoDT track comes on the radio it’s impossible to change the station, there are at least ten “driveway tracks” (a track that will make you sit in your driveway for four minutes to finish listening to) on this album. GRoDT is Fitty effortlessly straddling the line of gangster creditably and gangster marketability. This album (even if it was only for a second) made Fitty the king of New York, unfortunately it also had the negative effect of causing a million suburban white kids (including me) to shout, “G-G-G-G-UNIT” for the early part of their adolescence.
Why it ranks where it ranks: In the irony of all ironies 50 ended Ja Rule’s career by calling him out for being sappy and corny then 50 released 21 Questions (quite possibly the sappiest hip-hop song ever) and no one even batted an eye. I even really liked it at the time. What was I thinking? Oh yeah, that’s what. Maybe it’s because of how hard Fitty’s sold out since, but a lot of this album feels kind of dated.
Trademark Track: Patiently Waiting
16. The Infamous – Mobb Deep (1995)
“cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks”
Why it’s a classic: PRODIGY!!! This is classic headphone music filled with intricate rhymes and complex flows. It’s a great representation of ’90s New York hip-hop street tale storytelling, it doesn’t glorify the hood, but instead paints a bleak picture of drug dealing, poverty and crime.
Why it ranks where it ranks: Mobb Deep didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, they just tried to make a really good street album and succeeded for the most part, although their unbelievably hard lyrics did take a hit after some embarrassing revelations.
Trademark Track: Shook Ones (Part II)
15. Life After Death – The Notorious B.I.G. (1997)
“You’re nobody till somebody kills you”
Why it’s a classic: Like a three hour James Cameron movie or a 700 page Ayn Rand novel, double albums take a real commitment and are always intimidating. In Biggie’s posthumously released Life after Death he skillfully balances very violent hardcore raps with swagger happy pop appeal hip-hop. On some tracks his dark imagery combined with the menacing production bleeds gangster. While other tracks employ loose boasts and glossy beats that exude swag. No matter what track though, Biggie showcases his knack for metaphors and ability to string together complete thoughts in rhyme form.
Why it ranks where it ranks: I’m sure a lot of people may insta-close this page the second they see this “abomination of a ranking,” but at twenty-four songs long, Life After Death could have easily been edited down to a slimmer more efficient album .
Trademark Track: Choosing Hypnotize or Mo Money Mo Problems would be to easy, I got to go with, Kick in the Door.
Tier IV – The Overlooked Classics
14. The Lost Tapes – Nas (2002)
“No cameos. No hype. No bullshit.”
Why it’s a classic: Comprised of unreleased tracks from I Am and Stillmatic sessions The Lost Tapes have a more Illmatic feel than either of Nas’ previous releases. Nas abandons glitz and pop for what made him famous, gritty lyricism and complicated rhyme schemes. On The Lost Tapes Nas reminds everyone he is a street observer first and foremost.
Why it ranks where it ranks: The Lost Tapes is often overlooked because it (like all Nas’ projects) is stuck in the massive shadow of Illmatic and while it’s not Illmatic, it’s the closest Nas has come since his debut release.
Trademark Track: Doo Rags
13. Be – Common (2005)
“As a man we’re taught to hold it in”
Why it’s a classic: Following the flop that was Electric Circus, Common said, “Hey, I’m Common and I’m extremely likable, so why don’t I just do Common things instead of doing weird Electric Circus things?” Then he paired with Kanye (who produced nine tracks) and J Dilla (who produced the remaining two) and made one the most soulful and cohesive hip-hop albums of all-time. By the time the Intro is over you know exactly what you have in store, an unflappable Common rapping over some of the best beatmakers in the game.
Why it ranks where it ranks: I guess it can be dismissed as “safe,” but that’s not fair. While it’s not overly ambitious, it executes perfectly.
Trademark Track: The Corner
Tier III – The Really Really Really Good Classics
12. The College Dropout – Kanye West (2004)
“I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem. Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams.”
Why it’s a classic: When The College Dropout dropped it was a drastic shift from the dominant gangster voices of the time. It focused on institutional and racial prejudice, religion, family and personal struggles. Like every Kanye album it boasts flawless production and strong features. In Kanye’s debut effort he showcased his propensity for punch line heavy rapping and social consciousness. Most Ironically Kanye shows remarkable self-awareness, painting himself as an extremely endearing underdog. What happened?
Why it ranks where it ranks: On Kanye’s earliest project he proves raw as a rapper with not much technique or complexity, but Kanye being Kanye throws enough production value and trots out enough killer features to make it an undeniable classic.
Trademark Track: Jesus Walks
11. good kid, m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar (2012)
“this piru shit has been in me forever”
Why it’s a classic: Tabbed as the savior of the West Coast, tabbed as the next Pac, tabbed as the next Nas, Kendrick’s debut came with considerable expectations. And he delivered. In a day where gloss reigns supreme, Kendrick uses intricate rhymes, storyteller flows and complex themes to create an album that never looses steam and is always interesting. Like a young Nas or Pac, Kendrick is a smart socially conscious rapper with something to say and says it well. GKMC plays like a John Singleton movie, it’s gangster from a decidedly non-gangster point of view. The ominous, dark production compliments Kendrick perfectly and even the skits add to the downright cinematic atmosphere of the album.
Why it ranks where it ranks: It’s hard to rank an album this fresh. How will it hold up? What will its impact be? Where will K Dot be in three years? Ranking this album eleven almost feels a bit safe, in a few years I may look back and say I ranked this entirely too low. It’s an absolute classic, Ya Bish.
Trademark Track: Sing About Me
10. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill (1998)
“hip-hop started in the heart”
Why it’s a classic: Kicking off the top ten is the only women on the list. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is much more than just a hip-hop album, it’s a genre bending neo-soul meets reggae meets hip-hop project. Whether you call her a rapper that can sing or a singer that can rap, she’s just about the best dual threat ever. Compared to today’s duel threats, she’s (easily) a better rapper than Trey or Breezy and (equally as easily) she’s a better singer than Drizzy or Nicki. Lauryn’s voice is just – ugh- and her bars don’t quit. The driving beats and the soulful melodies combine to make a deeply personal album about love in all its forms.
Why it ranks where it ranks: This album has so much going on in it and it’s nearly perfect. It runs a little long but still packs so much greatness it’s hard to complain.
Trademark Track: Doo-Wop
9. The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem (2000)
“I don’t do black music, I don’t do white music, I make fight music for high school kids”
Why it’s a classic: The Marshall Mathers LP is a direct rebuttal and middle finger to all the critics who called The Slim Shady LP misogynistic, homo-phobic and violent (which it was, but still). The Marshall Mathers LP is insanely dark and sometimes feels like a direct peek into the mind of a psychopath as Em never backs off his ultra violent and sadistic content (cough-Kim-cough). Employing just the right amount of deadly wit and angst Em casts himself as the perfect anti-hero for anyone high-school age (a role Tyler the Creator has filled for the current generation). It’s not just the content though, Em’s rhyme schemes are air tight, his flows are fast and complex and he never wastes a word. He gives an emphatic “fuck you” to the pop scene, political correctness, parents (his included) and sometimes even his own fans.
Why it ranks where it ranks: The highs on this album are Mount Everest, but it doesn’t sustain, outside of Kim the last third of the album lags behind the rest.
Trademark Track: Stan
8. The Chronic – Dr. Dre (1992)
“This should be played at high volume preferably in a high residential area”
Why it’s a classic: (The Chronic isn’t on Spotify? WTF!??! I had to stream this on YouTube like it was 2008 or something.) If this album doesn’t make you want to drive around with the windows rolled down and the volume at full blast, I prefer we never meet. These beats are Gabourey Sidibe fat. It’s the holy grail of G-funk. Dre’s production is out of this world. And even though it’s a “solo project”, it’s as much a Snoop album as a Dre album. Snoop’s verses litter the album and he kills everyone of them. This is the album that brought rap to the suburbs and created a million little David Faustinos with it.
Why it ranks where it ranks: Like The Marshall Mathers LP the highs on this are unbelievable, but it struggles to sustain throughout.
Trademark Track: Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang
Tier II – The Near Perfect Classics
7. Late Registration – Kanye West (2005)
“I ask if you talkin’ bout classics, do my name get brought up?”
Why it’s a classic: The amazing thing about Kanye is that every album he makes is top notch (sans Cruel Summer) and every album (production-wise) out does his last. Late Registration is one of those rare times a sequel exceeds the original. It builds on everything The College Dropout gave us. It expands past simple soul sampling into a deeper range of musical influences including jazz, blues, rock and pop. Kanye spits with more confidence and more skill. He has a grander vision on this album with bigger ideas and goals and meets almost all of them. It’s one of those rare albums that can be blasted while driving with the windows down, played over headphones just trying to relax or cranked while you’re throwing back shots at a pregame.
Why it ranks where it ranks: While ‘Ye still isn’t the most technically proficient rapper in the game (see Diamonds and We Major where Jay and Nas murder him on his own tracks) he undeniably knows how to put together an album like no other. Late Registration is as complete as any album on this list.
Trademark Track: Gold Digger
6. All Eyez on Me – 2Pac (1996)
“So mandatory my elevation. My lyrics like orientation”
Why it’s a classic: This is Thug Life Pac at its finest. It’s a rare combination of complicated flowz and pop appeal. Nearly every song has a catchy hook spliced with air tight versez. This should be required listening for any young rapper. Pac is brash, in your face and all bravado. Recorded following Pac’s stint in jail he throwz everything he has on this album and soundz hungrier than a fat kid at Krispy Kream. It’s Pac’s celebration of freedom. He showcasez diverse flowz and his extreme talent for rhyming.
Why it ranks where it ranks: Even though it’s a two hour long double album (see Life after Death for my feelings on double albums), there aren’t many holes. That said, it could have been cut down to 20ish trackz and been holeless.
Trademark Track: Ambitionz Az a Ridah.
Tier I – The Classic Classics (These classics have absolutely no flaws. None. They are prefect. Ranking them at this point is just a matter of which one is more perfect.)
5/4. Reasonable Doubt – Jay-Z (1996), The Blueprint – Jay-Z (2001)
“you can’t knock the hustle”
Why Reasonable Doubt is a classic: Sometimes I get in trouble when I say Jay-Z is the best rapper alive when I should probably say he’s the most accomplished rapper of all time. Well, no matter how you cut it, this is where it all started. Reasonable Doubt is the best lyrical performance of Jay’s illustrious career. His undeniable coolness is on full display as he shows off his untouchable flow and his unparalleled confidence throughout the album. Even though it’s all about the hustle, the whole album sounds smooth and luxurious. Jay could be rapping about kittens and unicorns and this album would still be a classic on beats and production alone. The hustle has never sounded so good.
“If I ain’t better than Big, I’m the closet one”
Why The Blueprint is a classic: The album where Jay decided to stop living in Biggie’s shadow and takeover New York was The Blueprint. Like all of Jay’s albums (even the bad ones) the beats on here are ridiculous. Between the soulful (then unknown) Kanye tracks and the huge (also then unknown) Just Blaze instrumentals this album changed the game. Jay slowed down his flow, went decidedly less street and more swag to expand his pop appeal, something Pac, Biggie and Dre all did before him, but none did with the same tact. Jay shifted from talking about the hustle to talking about the spoils of the hustle establishing nearly every rap theme any rapper under 30 (minus Kendrick) prescribes to. The album never looses steam and never missteps, it’s impossible not to feel like the coolest person alive while listening to it. Also, for full disclosure, it has to be pointed out that Jay doesn’t even own the best verse on this album. That distinction goes to Em for his feature on Renegade.
Why they ranks where they rank: Maybe it’s not impossible, but I can’t choose between these two. They are both perfect Jay-Z albums. Reasonable Doubt is better lyrically. The Blueprint is more complete. They’re four and five in some order, I’m just not sure which.
Dead Presidents II may not be the best hip-hop song of all-time but it may be the most perfect.
Takeover may be the best diss track of all-time (explained here).
3. Illmatic – Nas (1994)
“Straight out the dungeons of rap”
Why it’s a classic: Illmatic is the Citizen Kane of rap. It was an instant classic the moment it came out. A masterpiece so far ahead of it time it’s just silly. Nas was only 20 when he released Illmatic and it immediately made him a legend. The whole album is only 10 songs and 40 minutes long but each track is so packed with rhymes and lyrical skill that it demands careful re-listening. Nas puts New York on his back, goes Bruce Lee on every single verse he spits and makes it all look insanely easy. Also BIG SHOUT OUT to AZ for one of the best features of all-time.
Why it ranks where it ranks: If you didn’t insta-close this at Life after Death, I’m sure you’ll insta-close it right here, but before you do hear me out. I know, I know, Illmatic is a perfect album and nearly every hip-hop fan in the world is in agreement that it is the best rap album ever and so on and so on. I’m not going to try and discredit it at all because – well – it really is a perfect album, but like Citizen Kane (a perfect movie) time has given us more perfect projects.
Trademark Track: NY State of Mind
2. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – (1993)
Why it’s a classic: Enter the Wu-Tang is so unbelievably dirty and gritty sounding. From RZA’s production (every beat is AMAZING) to the lyrics (every verse is amazing) to the kung-fu samples (predictably amazing), the whole album just sounds perfect. Between Method Man, U-God, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (my favorite), Ghostface, RZA, GZA and Masta Killa, there are no weak links, no weed carriers, it’s a murders’ row of lyrically talented MCs. Each verse is brash, funny, violent and lyrically dense. The album has no weak moments, it never ceases to entertain and is sprinkled with classic cuts through out. It’s the most fun
hip-hop album of all-time.
Why it ranks where it ranks: The whole album is timeless. It sounds like it could have been released in 1993, 2003 or 2013. Eight of the twelve tracks are all-time great cuts and the remaining four are still really really good. Like Twinkies, it hasn’t aged at all
Trademark Track: The real answer is CREAM but just to be contrarian, Mystery of Chessboxin’.
1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West (2010)
“Let’s have a toast for the douchebags”
Why it’s a classic: Released after Kanye’s year long self-imposed exile, MBDTF can only be described as Kanye’s Magnum Opus. It’s Kanye vs the world. To say this album is epic would be a gross understatement. It aspires to be unlike any hip-hop album before it and succeeds. Whatever “real hip-hop” is, this is decidedly not, that’s not a knock, it’s just an observation. From Nicki’s faux English accent preamble (?) to four minutes of inaudible auto-tune that sounds like a dying Decepticon to the Gil Scott-Heron conclusion, nothing on Earth sounds anything like this album. While Kanye’s ego explodes to record levels he seems oddly aware of it (and his flaws) and furthermore relishes in it (flaws included). The lyrics are equally punch line heavy and wrought in deep emotion. While never the most skilled rhymer Kanye covers his deficiencies with confidence, production value, tenacity and quotable line after quotable line. The entire album drips with grotesque beauty, it sounds like what the Palace of Versailles looks like, gaudy and grandiose with no room for subtlety. Whether it’s utilizing Cudi’s crooning hooks, wringing out the best verse of Nicki’s career or incorporating hipster favorite Bon Iver, Kanye uniquely understands the abilities of other artists and pushes them towards their maximum value (that said he still hasn’t figured out what to do with Swizz Beatz, but who has?). MBDTF is an album that could only come from the mind of Kanye West.
Why it ranks where it ranks: About 4,000 words ago I said, I would try to take my bias out of these rankings. Well, at least I tried.
Trademark Track: Runaway
If you stuck with me this long, thank you. If you skimmed through, rolled your eyes and sighed at my love for Kanye, thank you too.
I’m sure a lot of people won’t agree with these rankings and that’s cool. I wasn’t trying to showoff my hip-hop cred by doing this, I just thought it would be really fun to re-listen to all these classic albums, some of which I haven’t listened to in years and put them in rank order.
Feel free to tell my why I’m an idiot.
P.S. That’s not a mistake. There is no XXL Outkast album. WHAT THE FUCK XXL?!?! Southernplayalisticadollacmizik isn’t good enough for you? ATLiens isn’t good enough for you? Aquemini isn’t good enough for you? Stankonia isn’t good enough for you? Speakerboxxx/The Love Below isn’t good enough for you?
Idlewild isn’t good enough for you? Pfff.