Hundreds of hip-hop albums drop every month. Thousands every year. Given the sheer volume of music out there, it’s inevitable that some titles will fly under the radar. There are other reasons why an album might go unnoticed: label politics, poor promotion, etcetera. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard many of the albums on this list. They’re all remarkable and worthy of attention. From obscure releases by well-known rappers to unknown releases by obscure rappers, here are just a few great hip-hop albums you’ve probably never heard of.
13. 2pac & Boot Camp Clik – One Nation
The year is 1996. It’s hot enough in California to fry egg on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, the Bad Boy vs Death Row feud has reached a boiling point and is now approaching a reconciliatory chapter. 2Pac invites the Boot Camp Clik and several east coast rappers to his crib to record a reconciliation album. Big Daddy Kane. Nice & Smooth. Buckshot. Sean Price. The Outlawz. In one building. On one record. It would be appropriately titled One Nation. Imagine the collective sweat of these dudes as they perspired and labored over their rhymes in the sweltering studio. Unfortunately, 2pac would never live to see One Nation hit shelves. Pac’s murder quashed the album that had the potential to shake up the game. Fragments of the project have turned up on unsanctioned mixtapes. Some of Pac’s verses wound up on the Eminem-produced, posthumous album Loyal to the Game.
12. Qwel and Maker – So Be It
Chemistry. Qwel and Maker have lots of it. The pair’s perfect marriage of beats and rhymes on So Be It recalls Blu & Exile. Maker knows exactly how to accentuate his partner’s mood. Sometimes it’s a hazy summer beat; sometimes it’s a blaring siren, as on “Her Meggido.” Qwel’s breathless flow reminds me of Big Pun. Start anywhere. Pick any song and you’ll find everything in its right place. Every sample. Every lyric. Well placed. Group dynamic done right.
11. Sadistik – The Balancing Act
Unless you’re a crate-digging trip-hop enthusiast, you’re probably unfamiliar with Sadistik’s The Balancing Act. You should give it a go, though. It’s a thoroughly rewarding listening experience. Sadistik gives you plenty to chew on: noir guitar licks, cobwebby piano arpeggios, sophisti-rap melodies.
10. Nocando – Walk the Void
Nocando made a name for himself as a lethal battle rapper, but his albums have mostly flown under the radar. His best work though, is 2006’s Walk the Void, a stellar rap album powered by booming electro drums. “Should I go for their attention or their wallets first,” Nocando wonders on “Don’t Dance.” You can help him stop wondering by taking Walk the Void for a ride.
9. Jneiro Jarel – Three Piece Puzzle
Omar Jarel Gilyard is a rapper, producer, philosopher, all around awesome artist. The rapper known as Jneiro Jarel was born in Brooklyn to a military mom, who trotted around the globe for work. Jneiro lived in Houston for a hot second, which is why you’ll hear H-town references throughout his work. He moved to Philly in 2004, where he met Rich Medina and King Britt and started building the blocks that would form his most potent release yet, 2005’ss Three Piece Puzzle. It arrived loaded with sun-dried grooves, jazz beats rendered as atmospheric stuff, goofy rhymes and catchy hooks. If you like your hip-hop smart, cool and swathed in polyester, you’ll digThree Piece Puzzle.
8. Five Deez – Koolmotor
Five Deez are straight out of Cincinnati, that hotbed of hip-hop. The group’s franchise player is producer Fat Jon the Ample Soul Physician. MC Pase Rock supplies dope rhymes by the kilos. Unless you’re a ‘Natti hip-hop head, you’ve probably never heard their excellent debut, 2001’s Koolmotor. Just how good was Fat Jon’s boardwork on this? Good enough to soundtrack Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim for a year. Perfect chill music for a lazy Saturday.
7. Vakill – Worst Fears Confirmed
Soundtracked by the obscure Chicago production team Molemen, Worst Fears Confirmed is as much a masterpiece for its cinematic sound palette as it is for Vakill’s page after page of gripping tales. Vakill does a stellar job of documenting Chicago’s dangerous streets long before it became hip-hop sport to boast about the Windy City’s crime rate. He’s also one of the few men alive to have gone toe to toe with Ras Kass and Royce da 5’9″ and survived.
6. Resident Alien – It Takes a Nation of Suckers to Let Us In
When Russell Simmons approached a young Prince Paul with a label deal in the early 90s, he was expecting more of the riveting hits Paul was making for the likes of De La Soul, Kane and 3rd Bass. Instead, Paul took the advance, called up three friends and made a concept album about the immigrant experience in New York. Paul and his pals formed the group Resident Alien and recorded material for an album dubbed It Takes a Nation of Suckers to Let Us In. In typical Prince Paul fashion, he also named his label Dew Doo Man records. An early 12″ from the project showed promise. Two tracks, in particular, “Mr Boops” and “Ooh the Dew Doo Man” made the rounds. RA even filmed a video for “Mr. Boops.” However, Simmons wasn’t happy with Paul’s direction and pulled the plug on the project.
5. Apathy – Eastern Philosophy
Eastern Philosophy arrived at a time when Apathy was transitioning from indie-rap hero to would-be major star. His deal with Atlantic Records never produced an official full-length, but Ap gave us one helluva gift in the form of this widely overlooked gem, Eastern Philosophy. One song that immediately stands out to me is “The Buck Stops Here,” where Ap takes a page from Nas and raps from the perspective of a dollar bill. Brilliant stuff.
4. The Last Emperor – The Legend of Bigfoot
In hip-hop there are the lucky, the talented and The Last Emperor. Last Emperor made some noise with “Secret Wars” back in the day. The track’s concept was to pit his favorite MCs against comic book characters. Emp even did a spot-on imitation of their flows, mimicking the likes of Common and Ras Kass. “Secret Wars” drummed up reels of buzz for Emp’s debut, The Legend of Bigfoot. The Lyricist Lounge alum got signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment, you know, the label were rappers go to languish in limbo. Last Emp left the ‘Math and signed with Rawkus. The timing was wrong — after promoting another Emp hit, “The World of Suzie Wong,” Rawkus suddenly stopped releasing music to reshuffle its distribution deal. The Legend of Bigfoot has never seen a release date.
3. Panacea – The Scenic Route
Panacea (Raw Poetic and K-Murdock) had a brief stint at the freshly rebooted Rawkus Records in the mid-00s. The partnership made sense for both parties: Panacea’s vision of hip-hop perfectly aligned with what listeners had come to expect from Rawkus. In other words, if you like that midnight-soul aesthetic of Emanon, Foreign Exchange, Pharcyde, etcetera, you’ll like The Scenic Route. Panacea worked in the same vein with far less renown.
2. INI – Center of Attention
INI is a 5-man group comprised of Grap Luva (Pete Rock’s younger brother), Rob-O, Marco Polo, DJ Boodakhan, I Love H.I.M. Pete Rock produced their debut, Center of Attention, so he might as well be the group’s sixth member. All the planetary bodies seemed to be aligned for INI in the mid-90s, as they came close to releasing the brilliant Center of Attention on Elektra-distributed Soul Brother Records. With Grap Luva rapping his cheeks off and a peak-form Pete Rock cranking out butter beats, the course was set. Sadly, that wasn’t enough. The album which was first recorded between 1995 and 1996 didn’t see a release date until 2003.
1. Cru – Da Dirty 30
I can’t think of any other 30-track full length I could sit through from cover to cover without getting restless. Da Dirty 30 runneth over with nostalgic gems that capture the essence of 90s hip-hop. It’s telling that one of the opening tracks finds Yogi wishing he had a track on Nas’ Illmatic. Yogi, Chadeeo, and Mighty Ha then spend the next 60 minutes rapping like they’re auditioning for a feature on Illmatic. If you ever forget why you fell in love with 90s hip-hop, pop this in your whip and bump it at real loud.