2023 was a big year for hip-hop as the genre celebrated its 50th anniversary. A lot has changed in the music industry since the earliest MCs began telling their stories in rhyme schemes, but still, our admiration for the artistry remains the same. Each decade since the genre’s inception has birthed a new class of tastemakers and trendsetters to lead the way, resulting in some unforgettable pop culture moments and music releases. Many of the best rap albums seem to come from the ’90s, before social media caused mass changes in the creation and consumption of media.

Braggadocious bars and diss tracks kept all eyes on N.W.A. in the late 80s, securing them a spot on the list. A few modern performers get their flowers from us too, and we can’t forget the femcees who paved the way for Megan Thee Stallion, Latto, Coi Leray and other rap divas to move so confidently today. Here are 22 of the countless amount of iconic hip-hop albums.

22. N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988)

With the release of 2015’s Straight Outta Compton film came a resurgence in the world’s love for N.W.A., consisting of Ice Cube, MC Ren, the late Eazy-E, Yella, and Dr. Dre. As the O’Shea Jackson Jr.-led project shows, the legendary rap group faced plenty of backlash on their quest to release their debut LP, which arrived in 1988. Among its most recognizable titles are “Express Yourself” and “F**k Tha Police” – their explicit response to non-stop attempts to shut them down.

21. Lil’ Kim – Hard Core (1996)

Before Nicki Minaj claimed the title of Queen of Rap, it was Lil Kim who sat atop the industry’s throne. In 1996, not long after connecting with Biggie Smalls as a homeless teen, the East Coast native dropped her debut studio album, Hard Core. Jay-Z wasn’t the billionaire superstar we know him as now back then, but still, Kim nabbed a feature from him on “Big Momma Thang.” The track was meant to be a diss aimed at 2Pac and Biggie’s ex-wife, Faith Evans, but when the “Big Poppa” hitmaker disapproved, it was re-recorded.

20. Drake – Take Care (2011)

From the very start of his career in the music industry, Drake has had a polarizing effect on listeners, eliciting extreme reactions of obsession and adoration or total disinterest. No matter who chooses to tune in, the Canadian icon has consistently explored new sounds for nearly two decades. Several of Drake’s albums are worthy of a spot on this list, but we’re shouting out Take Care for helping us through the 2010s with unforgettable anthems like “HYFR,” “Make Me Proud” featuring Nicki Minaj and “The Motto” with Lil Wayne.

19. 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)

These days, Curtis Jackson is more focused on exposing Diddy’s harrowing past and expanding his Power universe than dropping new music. Still, the father of two did put his all into The Final Lap Tour last year, and join forces with mainstays like Nas and the leader of the Barbz for collaborations. When he was in his prime as a lyricist, 50 Cent put his all into 2003’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, which was executive produced with help from Eminem and Dr. Dre. The trio’s creative process found them merging elements of gangsta rap with R&B, helping to shape a sound that remains distinct in New York.

18. Fugees – The Score (1996)

The ’90s was a huge time for several female artists paving the way in every genre. While Mariah Carey and Faith Evans were among those holding it down in R&B, Lauryn Hill made her presence felt all throughout the hip-hop scene. Besides her impressive solo work (more on that later), the 48-year-old also connected with Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel for two albums as the Fugees. Their first, Blunted on Reality came in 1994, and their sophomore LP, The Score, followed two years later. Hill’s vocals shine on fan-favorite title “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” and she took home a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group in the late 90s alongside her groupmates.

17. Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)

Yet another debut album to make our round-up is Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, leaving his mark on the industry forever from 1993 on. The West Coast rhymer has one of the most recognizable voices in rap, and some of his first huge hits come from this 18-track effort. Among them is the controversial “Murder Was the Case,” which Snoop admitted during an interview on The Breakfast Club that he thinks might’ve manifested the murder accusations he wound up having to fight in court later on.

16. Missy Elliot – Supa Dupa Fly (1997)

When debates about who belongs on the female hip-hop Mount Rushmore, few people forget to add Missy Elliott to their list. The “1, 2, Step” hitmaker paved the way for today’s femcees on her 1997 LP, Supa Dupa Fly, which she recorded in just two weeks. Her fast-paced, clever rapping skills paired with Timbaland’s futuristic production made sonic magic, and guest appearances from Aaliyah, Lil Kim, Da Brat, Ginuwine, and more, made the perfect cherry on top for Elliott’s listeners. She followed SDF in 1999 on Da Real World, which boasts an even more impressive roster of collaborators.

15. DMX – It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot (1998)

DMX’s untimely death is one of the most heartbreaking tragedies to strike the music industry in the past decade. Still, his prolific discography helps fans to remember the New Yorker’s message of positivity and overcoming struggle, despite his own personal battles with addiction and other demons. On his first studio release, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, X made it known he’s a force to be reckoned with, particularly on “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” produced by Swizz Beatz. The former initially shut down the beat, as the blend of Atlanta and NYC sounds felt unfamiliar to him at first. “‘Man, that sounds like some rock ‘n’ roll track, I need some hip-hop shit. I’m not doing that. It’s not hood enough,'” the father of two recalled to Complex of a conversation with his fallen friend.

14. Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)

Post-N.W.A. Dr. Dre didn’t have a hard time finding other artists to work with. In particular, he and Snoop Dogg kept the hype in California going with their “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” song from the former’s The Chronic album. It came in December of 1992 via the Compton native’s Death Row Records. He didn’t hold back when throwing shade at Ruthless Records and Eazy-E throughout his bars and helped to put the Doggystyle artist on the map alongside his friend. Other noteworthy singles on the tracklist include “Dre Day” and “Let Me Ride.”

13. J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)

J. Cole fans are patiently waiting for the Aquarius icon to finish up his unparalleled feature run and share his next studio album, said to be called The Fall Off. Every project he’s delivered throughout his career has shown consistent elevation in Cole’s pen game, but 2014 Forest Hills Drive is some of his best work. Some might argue that the 13-song LP has no skips on its tracklist, or at the very least, they’ll have a hard time passing titles like “A Tale of 2 Citiez,” “Wet Dreamz” and “No Role Modelz,” which famously romanticizes Jada Pinkett and Will Smith’s partnership.

12. Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996)

54-year-old Jay-Z invests more energy in coaching up-and-coming artists than he does in the studio making music of his own these days. His creative endeavours have changed significantly over the years, but no matter how much the father of three evolves, hip-hop heads continuously go back to his 1996 release, Reasonable Doubt. Of his 13 studio albums, some argue that his debut is his best work. Hov connected with the late Biggie Smalls for “Brooklyn’s Finest,” and tapped a young Mary J. Blige to let her R&B vocals take the spotlight on “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” Others who helped out Jay-Z as he was finding his footing in the industry include Foxy Brown, Memphis Bleek, and Mecca.

11. Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)

If you couldn’t already tell, the ’90s was one of the best decades for rappers as technology began to take off and spark endless creativity in music and beyond. So far we’ve mostly celebrated solo artists, but Mobb Deep is a duo who made their voices heard in 1995 on their sophomore album, The Imfamous. Before that, they introduced themselves to the world on 1993’s Juvenile Hell, and later closed the trilogy with Hell on Earth. Havoc mostly produced the LP, and Q-Tip aided him with mixing engineering, seeking to create the perfect soundscape to take listeners through their introspective lyrics.

10. Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)

Eminem still likes to push people’s buttons today, as we saw during his recent beef with Benzino, but the Detroit native’s antics are far more reserved than we saw in the early 2000s. At the start of the millennium, the blonde bad boy shook things up in rap with The Marshall Mathers LP, leaving some listeners concerned with the graphic content of his storytelling. All this time later, “Stan” remains one of Slim Shady’s most well-known songs, largely thanks to his sample of Dido’s “Thank You,” and the terrifying realities of the obsessive fan culture that exists online in our modern world.

9. Nas – Illmatic (1994)

Nas and Hit-Boy have been running laps around the competition with their Magic and King’s Disease series’ these past few years, with the latter’s beats helping the “Hood2Hood” artist rhyme and flow effortlessly. Interestingly, Nas’ earlier efforts are heavily criticized for production that fails to satisfy listeners, though his 1994 introduction, Illmatic, remains a standout in his collection, earning flowers for both lyricism and sonic structure. Though it didn’t numerically achieve the acclaim of others on our list, it did (and still does) heavily influence countless other East Coast hip-hop artists.

8. 2Pac – All Eyez on Me (1996)

Around the same time Nas was getting his start in the rap game, Tupac Shakur was building a brand for himself too. 1996’s All Eyez on Me was the fourth and final studio effort the Poetic Justice actor was able to share before his shocking death, via Interscope Records. Across two discs, ‘Pac flexed his pen’s prowess across 27 songs, including “Ambitionz az a Ridah,” a remix of Dr. Dre’s hit song, “California Love” and multiple appearances from another star on the rise – Snoop Dogg. For the most part, the multi-talent explores themes of his life in poverty in comparison to what fame and fortune brought him, both good and bad.

7. OutKast – Stankonia (2000)

In response to the massive success of 1998’s Aquemini, André 3000 and Big Boi delivered Stankonia to kick off the new decade with a bang. In their usual fashion, the hip-hop group – known as OutKast – was at the forefront of exploring unique combinations of sound; gospel, rave music, funk, psychadelia, and Dirty South-inspired rock can all be heard throughout their fourth studio LP, ultimately debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. “Ms. Jackson,” a track inspired by 3000’s complicated relationship with his son’s mother, Erykah Badu, became their first to reach No. 1 on the Hot 100. OutKast later won Grammys for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for their work.

6. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

Among our final few picks for the world’s best rap albums is Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) from 1993. Several members of the powerful group, such as Method Man, RZA, and Raekwon have all had successful solo careers, but when they unite on tracks like “C.R.E.A.M.” they become truly unstoppable. Ol’ Dirty Bastard lent his hand to production on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” meanwhile The Wire actor did the same on the next track, “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit.” Four years later, they came back even stronger to remind us that it’s Wu-Tang Forever.

5. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)

Biggie Smalls’ time in the studio creating was cut short by his 1997 murder, giving him only a few years to record songs that would unknowingly go on to influence generations of others just like him. Prominent producers on Notorious’ debut were Seam Combs, Easy Mo Bee, Chucky Thompson, DJ Premier, and Lord Finesse. Its’ lyrical content is largely biographical, reflecting on the rap star’s life as a criminal before he found success, with “Juicy” and “Big Poppa” garnering the most attention.

4. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)

There’s no shortage of people upset that Lauryn Hill has only graced us with one full-length solo album so far, but even they can agree that her 1998 release stands the test of time. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill finds the black-haired beauty reflecting on life, love, loss, and so mich more using neo soul/R&B sounds with hip-hop influences. Her work continues to be sampled by modern artists decades after its original release, such as “Doo Wop (That Thing)” on his “Believe What I Say” for DONDA.

3. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Speaking of Ye, he, too, has more than one album that’s qualified to be recognized on our best rap albums round-up. We’ve selected 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for its raw, provocative themes, impressive roster of collaborators and general longevity as a listener. To this day, debate remains whether Nicki Minaj out-did him with her jaw-dropping verse on “Monster,” though “Power” clearly proves that the father of four is capable of holding his own. Other albums he’s shared that deserve recognition include The College Dropout and Yeezus.

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

Going back in time even further than the 90s, Public Enemy was one of the biggest tastemakers in rap throughout the late 80s. In 1988, they dropped off their It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back album, intentionally turning up the tempo after taking notes on public reception to their debut the year before. Their sophomore project left music lovers impressed, as it charted on the Billboard 200 for 47 weeks, peaking at No. 42 before earning a Platinum certification in 1989. When crafting Millions, Public Enemy’s goal was to make a “hip-hop equivalent to Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.'”

1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (2017)

Finally, our No. 1 rap album – and the only release on this list to have a Pulitzer Prize – is Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Much like those to come from Compton before him, the father of two has always set out to create positive change through his art, telling thought-provoking stories about the chaos and conflict that are an inescapable part of life for many Americans. Critics also highly favor K-Dot’s To Pimp a Butterfly LP, and good kid, M.A.A.D. city, not to mention his provocative 2022 album, Mr. Morales & The Big Steppers.