The Greatest Hip-Hop Album Of All Time Doesn’t Exist
I can’t knock the hustle. It’s hard out here for a mostly-digital music-focused publication, and you’ve got to do something to keep people coming back and clicking. The listicle is one way to make that happen, and the listicle will never die. We at Stereogum have been known to publish a list from time to time. I get it.
Rolling Stone might be the most famous and generally-respected music publication that has ever existed — the first thing that regular people bring up when they find out what I do for a living — but Rolling Stone still needs people to keep reading their shit. So: Listicles. Lots of them. The 100 Best BTS Songs. The 25 Most Stylish Musicians Now. The 20 Worst Christmas Songs Of All Time. Sure. Fine. Why not. But when Rolling Stone takes it upon itself to rank the 200 greatest hip-hop albums of all time, my eyeballs start to itch. My blood pumps a little faster. Electrical storms sweep into certain nodes of my brain. I have to talk some shit. I can’t help myself.
Over the decades, Rolling Stone has had a weird off-and-on relationship with rap music, which puts it in line with a lot of legacy institutions. The magazine put Run-DMC on its cover in 1986, a key moment of institutional validation that clearly meant a lot for the group, right up there with their first platinum album or getting booked at Live Aid. But the Rolling Stone reviews of early rap classics merit an entire page in the crucial tome ego trip’s Book Of Rap Lists. On AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted: “Ice Cube ultimately sounds like the Andrew Dice Clay of rap.” The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick is “a truly hateful record.” On We Can’t Be Stopped, the Geto Boys’ “hatred is their own, and it pervades the entire album.” God damn, homie.
The people who wrote those reviews are not the same ones who put together the new list of the 200 greatest hip-hop albums of all time. The current roster of writers at the magazine is sharp and thoughtful. Some of them are friends of mine, and some of them are personal heroes. Presumably, they know that it was dumb to call 3 Feet High And Rising “one of the most original rap albums” and then give it a middling three-star review. (3 Feet High is at #33 on their list. The three albums mentioned in that last paragraph appear, respectively, at #58, #82, and #67.) In attempting to wrestle 43 years of recorded rap history into a digestible 200-album list, those writers have made some baffling decisions, just as any of us would’ve done, but they’ve also taken care to respect the evolving history of the genre.
It’s probably best to look at lists like this as celebrations rather than polemics. Rap is decades deep into its history, three or four times older than rock ‘n’ roll was when Rolling Stone itself started publishing. I like how the Rolling Stone writers don’t focus too deeply on any one particular stretch of rap history. I like how they draw attention to albums that don’t often appear on lists like this one: the Jacka’s Tear Gas, Drakeo The Ruler’s Cold Devil, Above The Law’s Black Mafia Life, Jeru The Damaga’s The Sun Rises In The East. I like how Da Drought 3, a mixtape, ranks higher than any of Lil Wayne’s actual albums. And if you’re forced to pick a single greatest rap album of all time, then Ready To Die is a smart choice. It’s a work of stunning wit and gravitas that captures all of rap’s past and much of its future, and it comes from a guy who never had a chance to fall off. (Rolling Stone‘s runner-up is Stankonia, which is amazing but which is probably the fourth-best OutKast album. But that’s the kind of argument that a list like this is supposed to inspire.)
With all that said, Rolling Stone’s list is fucking nuts. When the first two albums you see on a countdown like this one are Travis Scott’s Astroworld and Juice WRLD’s Goodbye & Good Riddance, you know you’re in for a wild ride, especially if it goes straight from those record to KMD’s Mr. Hood. It’s not that those newer records aren’t important or worthy of consideration; it’s that rap history is way too ungainly to pit these albums against one another. The scope of a list like this guarantees insanity. Does Cam’ron’s Purple Haze really belong behind Mac Miller? Is Kid Cudi’s Man On The Moon really one spot better than Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded? It might make sense to ask whether Doja Cat’s Planet Her qualifies as a rap album, but it does not make sense to pit it against Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2. Seeing these records arrayed next to each other makes me feel like my brain is melting, like wet chunks of grey matter are dripping down the back of my throat.
Look: I love Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy. I think it’s bracing and exciting and funny and alive — a rare rap record that plays the industry games and wins all of them. On this very website, I said that Invasion Of Privacy was my favorite rap album of 2018. I did not, however, say that Invasion Of Privacy was the #16 rap album of all time, that it belongs on the list right between Yeezus and Paid In Full. That would’ve been an absurd thing to do. It is an absurd thing to do — not because Invasion Of Privacy isn’t great but because it belongs in a whole different conversation. It’s not playing the same game as Paid In Full, and when you try to compare those two albums, both suffer.
When you try to make that kind of case for Invasion Of Privacy, you ultimately do Cardi B’s work a disservice. Invasion Of Privacy is a product of an altogether different set of conditions than the ones that gave us Madvillainy or It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot or Illmatic, all albums that show up on the Rolling Stone list behind Invasion Of Privacy. (Putting Illmatic all the way down at #24 is an absolutely intentional troll move, and I respect it, even if I don’t even remotely agree.) In attempting to frame Invasion Of Privacy as an all-time classic, you practically guarantee a splenetic online backlash. You’d be serving Invasion Of Privacy much better if someone simply wrote an article about why it’s a good record.
Of course, “that’s a good record” doesn’t pay the bills. A splenetic online backlash, when harnessed right, will bring a whole lot more attention and eyeballs to your publication. I’ve played that exact same game plenty of times. I know how it works. And honestly, in general there’s nothing wrong with lists. An hour or so after Rolling Stone published its rap list, we put up our own list of the year’s best albums so far. Our list isn’t right. It’s subjective, just as every list is subjective. But Stereogum is not the same kind of institution as Rolling Stone. When an institution like Rolling Stone publishes a list, it doesn’t have that same implied subjectivity. It comes across more like an ivory-tower kind of thing. Maybe that’s not fair, but that’s how it is. In any case, the Rolling Stone list was never going to be right. There is no right list. A list that was right, whatever that might possibly mean, would be a lot less interesting than a list that puts a Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and Migos’ Culture right next to each other.
The problem here, I’d argue, is that rap is a messy, fractured, living genre of music. It actively resists this kind of canon-friendly organization. Rap music works the best when it makes you feel like you’ve got molten lava in your blood. That’s what’s great about it. The miracle of rap music is that some of America’s poorest, most oppressed communities built this whole new art form out of pure language and shards of other people’s music. This art form then went on to conquer the world because it made people feel more powerful than they were. That happens from moment to moment. It doesn’t happen because someone made a great hermetically sealed album that can then be judged against and alongside history’s other great hermetically sealed albums. (Lists of the greatest rock albums might suffer from that same problem, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
When rappers get too consumed with the idea of the classic album, with writing their name on history, they often lose sight of the chaotic energy that made them exciting. I can remember the absolute dread that I felt when Ludacris talked about how 2006’s Release Therapy was going to be his all-time classic, as if an all-time classic was something that anyone needed from Ludacris. (For the record, Ludacris does have an all-time classic. It’s called Back For The First Time, and it’s got Luda rapping about making you eat dirt and fart dust, which is not the kind of thing that people say when they’re trying to make classic albums. Back For The First Time is not on the Rolling Stone list, an unforgivable oversight.) To my mind, the best rap records are the ones where the people making the music weren’t stressing about their place in the historical record.
I get why the Rolling Stone exists, but exercises like that — even ones that make an admirable effort to prioritize recent music along with established canon fodder — run the risk of turning something as alive as rap music into museum fare. Rap’s history is important and great, and something like a Verzuz battle can draw attention to that history in fun and exciting ways. But if you look at rap’s history as a series of albums to be consumed, you miss the key community aspect of the music and the culture surrounding it.
This past weekend, in a park near where I live, there was a big bike giveaway for local kids. Many of those bikes came from Atlanta. Dr. Wes Bellamy, the former vice mayor of Charlottesville, had texted Jeezy personally to ask him to donate some bikes, and Jeezy sent a U-Haul full of them up for the giveaway. I’m guessing Jeezy does stuff like that all the time. I’m guessing lots of rappers do stuff like that all the time; I just happened to hear about this one because it happened close to home. That kind of thing won’t ever make a Rolling Stone list, but it ultimately matters a whole lot more than where Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 falls on the all-time list. (It’s at #101. Way too low, in my opinion.) The feeling that I got the first time that I heard “Put On” or “Stay Strapped” or the “Go Crazy” remix matters more, too.
Rap music is competitive. You’re supposed to argue about who’s the best at any given moment, or whether your present-day favorite could’ve gone toe-to-toe with the old-school icon of your choice. But rap will lose its life force if it ever fits neatly into a greatest-albums list. From that perspective, then, the bugnuts absurdity of the Rolling Stone list is a victory. Rap can’t be forced into coherence. It’s too alive for that. There is no greatest hip-hop album of all time because the greatest-album lens just isn’t going to give you a good idea of what hip-hop is. Instead, the world’s biggest music magazine will publish a completely haphazard and chaotic list, and something that might’ve imposed order will instead bring more confusion. That’s good. Confusion is better.
1. Tone Tone – “Amazzon” (Feat. E-40 & Sada Baby)
If you’re going to line up Sada Baby and E-40 guest verses on your song, you better be ready to say some wild shit. Detroit’s Tone Tone’s response was to let us know, on the chorus, that he will throw a bitch out of his house like she’s Jazzy Jeff. Well played. (I wonder how E-40 feels about the idea that In A Major Way is the 178th-greatest hip-hop album of all time.)
2. Lakeyah – “Mind Yo Business”
This type of cold-hearted money-over-sex heartbreaker rap always gets me, but this one punched in the cheat code by flipping the hook from Iconz’ “Get Crunked Up.” I am helpless before it.
3. DCG Shun & DCG Bsavv – “Jungle Life”
Drill might’ve spread worldwide, but nobody outside of Chicago has managed that crucial, paradoxical combination of fired-up and mournful.
4. Mike Dimes – “Home (Remix)” (Feat. J.I.D)
It’s a risky move to invite a rapper like J.I.D to come in and walk all over your remix. You better be really confident that your shit is strong enough already, that you won’t be totally upstaged. Mike Dimes was confident, and he was right to be confident. This goes.
5. Rob49 – “Hustler V2” (Feat. Kevin Gates)
Here’s another case where the guest star could’ve come along and turned the original street-level hit into a starpower showcase, but the combination of Gates and fellow impassioned Louisiana rapper Rob49 just makes too much sense. Gates sounds like he was always on this.