Backtrack: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

20. Raekwon The Chef Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
(Loud/RCA, 1995)

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is arguably the best solo album effort from the Wu Tang Clan. Raekwon was not the fan favorite of the group but managed to create the best material of all his comrades. A few singles were released from “Cuban Linx”. Amongst them were “Heaven and Hell”, “Criminology”, Incarcerated Scarfaces”, and “Ice cream” which became the album’s biggest record. Although the album fell short of acquiring significant sales comparable to the group’s collective efforts, it is still looked upon as a Hip Hop classic.-June

19. Ice Cube Death Certificate
(Lench Mob/Priority, 1991)

Death Certificate marked a rebirth for Ice Cube in a couple of ways. First of all, O’Shea finally dumped his trademark Jheri Curls (leaving his former homeboy Eazy-E as just about the only famous person still rocking a Jheri-curl by 1991.) Secondly, Certificate marked Cube’s assimilation into the Nation of Islam. This association resulted in one of the most pointed political works of hip-hop’s most political era. In terms of being able to vocally deliver righteous anger, Cube might’ve been second only to Chuck D at that point, and Cube was able to deliver his messages in a potent but humorous way without having to deal with a clock-wearing sidekick. Cube was still (at this point) the only West Coast artist who got major props in New York, and he does a good job making Cali Culture easily digestible to rap fans on the other side of the country. Yes, there are moments of genuine hatefulness on this album (“Black Korea” and “Horny Lil Devil” stand at the top of that list,) and the NWA dis record “No Vaseline” walks the line between hilarious and disturbing, but Cube was at the top of his game here. Afterwards, Dre changed the game with G-funk, Cube went Hollywood, and he was never the same again. –Big Money

18. Boogie Down Productions Criminal Minded
(B-Boy Records, 1987)

“Criminal minded/ you’ve been blinded/looking for a style like mine/you can’t find it”…KRS-One preached these words on Boogie Down Productions’ album entitled “Criminal Minded”. Even the cover of the album emphasized its title as KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock posed with guns and plenty of ammunition. Fueled with diss records such as “The Bridge is Over” and “South Bronx”, the duo targeted a few Queens artists and gained their popularity. However, not to be confused, outside of those battle rhymes KRS-One possesses a particular set of lyrical skills that are consciously a nightmare to other rappers. He delivered a verbal assault on each song which righteously backs up the album’s title.-June

17. GZA/Genius Liquid Swords
(Geffen, 1995)

“A lot of dudes write these street tales and they’re so gory, ’cause they think gory is visual … they’re so literal, and so street level. You know, like crack spots and whatever. I wanted to write something and take it to a level where nobody’s done it.”-GZA, as told to the Seattle Times

GZA’s lyrics reflect an imagination fired by cheap kung-fu flicks and a blurry sense of history. With its tight beat, Liquid Swords emphasizes the finesse with which GZA weaves his vocals over straightforward rhythms. In contrast to his hyperactive wordplay, the music is meditatively simple, but the combination works.-Entertainment Weekly, 1995.

There is just something special about that first round of Wu-Tang solo records. It’s difficult to pinpoint another period in Hiphop that’s even comparable to it. Few, if any, possess RZA’s talent for structuring an album. It’s not just the quality of music he produced during that initial 93-96 run, but also the sheer volume of work. We’re talking; Tical, Return of the 36 Chambers, Cuban Linx and Ironman, but most of all, we’re talking Liquid Swords– the grandmaster of Wu Tang albums. RZA’s production on that project, beautiful and sinister, perhaps the finest moment of his legendary career.

Liquid Swords is amongst the most gripping pieces of music I have ever heard. From the moment you press play, and the opening dialogue from Shogun Assassin kicks in, you know you’re going to be trapped till the end. The transition from one track to the next is just too smooth. GZA proves himself as the Wu’s most creative lyricists, his verses throughout are flawless, and act as the perfect match to RZA’s unsettling soundtrack. For my money, Liquid Swords is the most complete rap album ever made.-Duan

16. Eric B. & Rakim Paid In Full
(4th & Broadway, 1987)

I’ll paraphrase a story I told at some point before. The first time I heard Rakim’s voice was in the late summer of 1987. I was living in Michigan at the time, and I was listening to whatever WJLB’s top 8 at 8 countdown was at the time. “I Ain’t No Joke” was the #8 song. Michael Stipe notoriously compared his reaction to hearing Patti Smith’s Horses for the first time as akin to having a piano dropped on his head. That’s pretty much equal to the way I felt the first time I heard Rakim’s voice.

The coolest thing about Rakim back then was… his coolness. No matter what he was talking about, you never got the impression that he was trying too hard. While Run-DMC and LL Cool J were busy screaming most of the time, Ra was laying in the cut, dropping smooth verses. When matched with Eric B (or whoever produced the damn album)’s James Brown samples, Paid In Full was a hip-hop revolution, setting the stage for much of what followed for the next couple of years and even today. Listen to the financially-motivated rhyming of Rick Ross and consider the fact that he’s just a faded, faded facsimile of Rakim. Hey, Michael Jackson never had to apologize for Chris Brown, right? Big Money

The album which redefined rap and established the framework for modern emcees to follow. You will scarcely find an LP that had more influence on the future of it’s genre than this one. Rakim’s verses on Paid In Full have been bitten, reworked and reused more times than those on maybe any other Hip-hop record ever. The album also stands as a lesson in consistency and quality control from The God Emcee: of the ten tracks included in the final cut, Rakim raps on just seven – and all seven have been immortalized as true classics. That’s what made him the standard bearer that he was: he demanded this level of brilliance from everything he released.-Duan

15. LL Cool J Mama Said Knock You Out
(Def Jam, 1990)

“Don’t call it a comeback…”

Well, LL…Mama Said Knock You Out kinda was. After all, LL Cool J’s previous effort, Walking With a Panther, found the superstar “going Hollywood,” slightly out of touch with what was going on in hip-hop (which was still evolving at lightning speed.) Conscious of the fact that he was falling off, 22-year old Cool J hooked up with Marley Marl, got focused, and scored an album that hit on every cylinder imaginable. The album started out with the trunk rattler “The Boomin’ System” and by the end of Side 1, you’d already heard LL make peace with new jack swing on “Around the Way Girl,” document the life of a former rap star in “Cheesy Rat Blues,” deliver one of his trademark battle raps on “Murdergram” (“when I get on the microphone I want silence/let KRS-ONE stop the violence” still makes me smile when I hear it,) and kick off a rap trend of introducing listeners to his less talented homies on “Farmers Blvd. (Our Anthem)” So far, almost all good…and there was still the mighty title track, the body movin’ “Jingling Baby (remix)” and “To Da Break of Dawn” (one of the greatest-and most efficient-dis records in history.) The album restored LL’s street cred while still managing to cross over (“Around The Way Girl” was LL’s first top ten pop hit,) won LL his first Grammy…yeah, it was definitely a comeback, plus some!-Big Money

14. Public Enemy Fear of a Black Planet
(Def Jam, 1990)

…in which Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad’s musical concept of “noise” reaches its’ apex. Chuck and Flavor shout over everything on this album-screw the familiar James Brown samples. How about a sample of the guitar solo at the end of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy?” Or a recontextualizing of the horn blast from T.S. Monk’s 1980 disco hit “Bon Bon Vie (Good Life)?” Lyrical content aside, Black Planet is one of hip-hop’s most creatively produced albums. And then there’s the lyrics. Angrier than he’d ever been (and that’s saying a lot) after a year of extreme tumult within the group’s ranks, Chuck D. went for broke on this album. “Welcome To The Terrordome” and “Fight the Power” (added onto this album after featuring in the previous year’s film “Do The Right Thing”) are two of the most incendiary singles to be released in any musical genre. Thankfully, Flav was around for comic relief-and with “911 Is a Joke,” P.E.’s court jester managed to combine an important message, a funky groove and a sense of humor into P.E.’s most recognizable hit (to a pop audience.)-Big Money

13. A Tribe Called Quest Midnight Marauders
(Jive, 1993)

By the time Midnight Marauders came out in late fall 1993, the genius of A Tribe Called Quest was already something I took for granted. However, one night shortly after the album’s release, I found myself in my co-worker Steve’s Upper West Side apartment. Steve was a transplant from Oklahoma-a country bumpkin with flavor, and as we smoked pot (me for perhaps the second or third time in my life) and listened to Midnight Marauders, I had the typical experience that someone enjoying an initial drug experience has. It could have been the weed, it could have been Steve’s dope stereo system, it could have been the view from his apartment (in retrospect, I have no idea how he was able to afford this place,) but it all clicked for me that night. The title track (sort of) came on, and as Q-Tip described a late-night stroll through New York City, I had an “experience.” It was like being sucked into the music and almost being placed alongside Tip as he hit the bodega for a hero sandwich and then got his cipher interrupted by Jake. Of course, that’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Midnight Marauders-my favorite Tribe album by a country mile-but seeing as you should have this album no matter your age, size, race or anything else…I’ll let you listen and find out about all the other good stuff on your own.-Big Money

12. Fugees The Score
(Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1996)

The Fugees’ 1993 debut, Blunted on Reality, would have gone double-wood if not for a remixed version of the album track “Nappy Heads.” It became a minor hit nationwide, and a major hit in New York and surrounding environs. Despite a ton of press, “Nappy” was the first thing that put Clef, Pras and Lauryn (but mainly Lauryn) on most peoples’ radar. Determined to follow the album up with a hit, and stung by the critical consensus that Ms. Hill was the only thing worth salvaging from the group, The Score (as in “settle…”) has attitude, bite…and good songs. Of course, two of those songs are straight-up cover versions, a relative novelty in hip-hop music. Wyclef indulged his Bob Marley obsession with “No Woman, No Cry,” and Lauryn brought Roberta Flack into modern times-underscoring a relatively straightforwardly sung version of “Killing Me Softly” with a little boom-bap. Thanks to that song (and Columbia Records’ refusal to release it as a single,) The Score became a #1 smash, eventually winning The Fugees a Grammy for Best Rap Album. Of course, things fell apart almost immediately after, and an attempted comeback attempt a decade after the album’s success fell apart. For one shining moment, though, The Fugees represented all that was right about hip-hop music. –Big Money

11. Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
(Def Jam, 1988)

Public Enemy’s 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show!, wasn’t exactly ordinary, but it was definitely rough around the edges. Public Enemy hadn’t figured out what made them them yet. A year of touring the world managed to clarify Chuck D.’s style, and in-house production team The Bomb Squad’s sound coalesced. The first (unofficial) single from Nation of Millions was “Bring the Noise,” and “noise” was the perfect word to describe the sound of this album. Random horn blasts, funk guitars and drum breaks, rock guitars…run ’em through a blender and you have a good idea of what Nation of Millions sounds like (although even the sound of this album pales when compared to the ostentatious Fear of a Black Planet.) Chuck ramped up his rhyme style to fit the music-barking like a militant Marv Albert. For a lot of rap fans, Nation of Millions was the album that expanded their consciousness. It was certainly the first time I heard names like Farrakhan and Chesimard dropped in song. Music with a message doesn’t get much doper.-Big Money

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