I love music. Not only do I love music, but I love talking about it just as much. Growing up in the epicenter of rap music known as New York City — specifically The Bronx (aka the birthplace of Hip-Hop) — has made the genre an important part of my upbringing and identity. My music taste has evolved over time across all genres, but right now I feel that I have a pretty solid understanding of what I like and look for in a rap album and artist. Here are the 15 albums that have helped me come to that conclusion:
*Disclaimer: This isn’t a list of my favorite albums of all time, it’s simply a list defining my tastes in music. I’m also 24 and my taste reflects that, so, if you’re expecting “mumble rap” erasure or even expecting exclusively “older” artists…Good Luck Charlie!*
Life After Death
The Notorious B.I.G.
Though I was 2 months shy of a year old when this album came out, Life After Death is one of the first albums that taught me a few things about the culture of rap music. This album was my introduction to the concept of posthumous albums, and Biggie’s career as a whole helped me understand the concept of rap beef and how it can define an artist’s career. Though I was a newborn when this album was released, it got the majority of its plays from me when I was in high school. To this day, Biggie’s verse in Mo Money Mo Problems never fails to bring me joy. A few other timeless favorites of mine from this album include Notorious Thugs, What’s Beef, and Hypnotize.
If anyone asked me to talk about artists I grew up on, Jay-Z would be one of the first mentioned. Having an older sister led to The Blueprint being one of the first Jay-Z albums I can remember hearing as a child. I vividly recall hearing Takeover play from her speakers while she cleaned her room, which eventually was followed by U Don’t Know. Kanye West also makes this album one of my favorite Jay-Z albums, as he contributed to the production on the songs Izzo (H.O.V.A) and Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love).
Get Rich or Die Tryin’
If we talk about specific albums that I grew up on, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is the first that comes to mind. I vividly remember a soon-to-be 7-year-old Shalayna hearing this album play consistently at home. Songs like In da Club (never forget 50 Cent making his initial video appearance hanging from the ceiling) and 21 Questions had a huuuge impact on my experiences with rap growing up, and a significant impact on rap culture as a whole. Other favorites of mine from this album include Wanksta, P.I.M.P., Patiently Waiting (feat. Eminem), and Many Men (although I wasn’t allowed to sing this specific song as a child- #growingupChristian). Since its release , 50 Cent has ventured into clothing, television production, as well as other entrepreneurial endeavors, but I will always regard 50 Cent as one of the many artists who helped solidify the legacy of New York City rap.
While this post isn’t intended to solely highlight my favorite rap albums, Kanye West’s Graduation is one of the few albums mentioned here that actually falls under the “favorites” category. Graduation follows the college theme of his previous albums Late Registration and College Dropout, and I must say this album served as an excellent farewell to that theme. In addition, it served as an amazing transition from “college era” Kanye to “808s” Kanye. Upon this album’s release, Good Life (feat. T-Pain), Stronger and Flashing Lights served as mainstream favorites and was constantly played on every radio station. Not only does he start off the album with Good Morning — which is a song I still hold on a pretty high pedestal — but with features like Lil Wayne on Barry Bonds, and the legendary track that is Can’t Tell Me Nothing, Graduation is very deserving of its position on my list of favorites. Other songs I hold very dear to my heart are Champion, and Homecoming, which would definitely appear on my list of favorite rap songs. After all, as said on The Glory, “The hood love to listen to listen to Jeezy and Weezy- and oh yeah Yeezy!”
Tha Carter III
“I-I feel big. You know what I mean. Like not big in the sense of weight, you know what I mean? Like gaining weight or nothing like that, like colossal.”
Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III was released while I was in middle school, which led to him becoming one of my favorite rappers all the way through high school. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter album series brought about 5 albums in his discography, but this specific album is very monumental. On Mr. Carter — which featured Jay-Z as a tribute to both artists’ last names — Lil Wayne is reflecting on how far he’s come in his career. Kanye’s signature production style can be heard on both Let The Beat Build (one of my favorite instrumentals on the album) and Comfortable, which features Babyface. This album being released during the MySpace era also contributes to my appreciation for it because like MySpace, this album helped shape my adolescence. Songs like Lollipop, Got Money, Mrs. Officer, and A Milli could be heard all over the radio and on everyone’s MySpace profiles. At the time, A Milli was also very influential to the culture, as it was a goal for many alike to be able to recite the signature fast-paced lyrics of Wayne without error. This album being released during a presidential election year, also led to the release of a version of A Milli being released (not by Lil’ Wayne) paying homage to former President Barack Obama.
Mac Miller’s K.I.D.S. is by far one of the most influential projects released during my teenage years. I grew up in a pretty strict household and while I didn’t go out much, this album was my escape. K.I.D.S. spoke to my inner carefree teenager, and listening to it made me want to be just that. Going to the park after a day of high school with my friends and listening to Knock Knock and Don’t Mind if I Do contributes to the nostalgia that I experience listening to this album even today. Like MySpace, Tumblr was another social network that was shaped by adolescence, and the platform is ultimately responsible for me discovering Mac Miller’s music. I will always remember my first time listening to Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza when it appeared on my Tumblr feed one glorious day. Senior Skip Day made me anticipate cutting school for the first time, and the song perfectly describes exactly how laid back it was for me. It’s impossible for me to reflect on the legacy Mac Miller left behind without K.I.D.S. being the first album I think of.
Live. Love. A$AP.
Remember when I said Tumblr shaped my adolescence? It is impossible for me to have that discussion without bringing this mixtape. When the Peso video dropped, it blew up on Tumblr and nothing was the same. I also saw the impact people like A$AP Rocky had on fashion- especially growing up in New York City. People in my age group practically lived in SoHo, and wore brands like Supreme to look exactly like A$AP Rocky in this video. Off the bat, the tape starts with Palace, which I think was an amazing way to introduce himself. Brand New Guy, which features Schoolboy Q is still in heavy rotation, and a few of my other favorites from this tape included Get Lit, Wassup, and Purple Swag Chapter 2 (the real ones remember when this song was the inspiration for one of my first Instagram names). Live. Love. A$AP. played a huge part in my appreciation for what was at the time newer age of East Coast rap, and snowballed into my enjoyment of other rappers from New York City.
I will start this off by saying I was very late to the Flatbush ZOMBiES train. While I was familiar with their name, I didn’t listen to them for myself until 2015. I have a huge appreciation for this mixtape and group, as they were my first introduction to “psychedelic” rap. One of the things that solidified my love and appreciation of this mixtape is Meechy Darko’s lyricism on songs like Mary, Nothing Above Thee and Al Bundy. Erik “The Architect”‘s production on the album stands out, along with Meechy, Erik, and fellow member Zombie Juice’s trifecta of excellence on songs like Thug Waffle (and I must say while I did thoroughly enjoy Meech’s verse, Zombie Juice had my favorite verse on this song). Another favorite of mine is Friday– shoutout to that sample.
good kid, m.A.A.d city
good kid, m.A.A.d city is another album included on this list that is also on my list of favorite albums. Like Live.Love.A$AP did for New York City, this album, along with the rest of Kendrick and TDE’s discography introduced me to a new wave of West-coast rap. One of my favorite aspects of this album is the storytelling heard on songs like Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, The Art of Peer Pressure, and Money Tees. With this being said, GKMC made me fall in love with storytelling rap. Another plus for me when it comes to rap albums is skits, which can be found at the end of Poetic Justice and Real. Kendrick also pays tribute to the older generation of California rap with Dr. Dre features on Compton and The Recipe.
Chief Keef’s impact on the culture isn’t talked about enough, let’s start there. When Finally Rich dropped, I was already somewhat familiar with Chief Keef, but my infatuation with Chicago Drill music was solidified with this album. I remember going to my Bronx high school and my classmates and friends even started adopting Chicago lingo that was heard in Chief Keef’s music. From the iconic monologue heard on the intro track Love Sosa, to the timeless song Kobe which pays tribute to the late NBA player of the same name, to I Don’t Like feat. Lil Reese which got remixed by Kanye West, G.O.O.D Music, and Jadakiss, this album had it all. A few favorites of mine include Hallelujah, Understand Me, Finally Rich, and Hate Bein’ Sober. Finally Rich definitely deserves its place on this list, as it not only began my Chief Keef fandom, but also led to the introduction of other Chicago-based rappers like Fredo Santana, G Herbo, and Lil Durk.
Though Joey Bada$$ Summer Knights came out while I was in high school, thinking of this mixtape always reminds me of how I used to get ready to Hilary $wank almost EVERY morning my sophomore year of college. Similar to Live.Love.A$AP and D.R.U.G.S., Summer Knights is another album that kept me in tune to the emerging new wave era of East Coast rap. I remember when I first listened to My Yout and couldn’t get over how genius I thought the line “I don’t drink too much, I know the bud wiser” was. Joey Bada$$ and his collective Pro Era, along with Flatbush Zombies and The Underachievers made up the supergroup Beast Coast, which took New York City rap by storm. Beast Coast’s own Meechy Darko, Chuck Strangers, and Issa Gold also make an appearance on the song My Jeep. However, one of the main reasons for this mixtape being featured on this list is one of my all-time favorite Joey Bada$$ songs and my favorite instrumental from this tape- 95 Til Infinity (iykyk).
sidenote: I simply can’t go on without mentioning how influential his first mixtape 1999 was for my age group at the time of its release.
Welcome to Fazoland
As previously mentioned, I became a big fan of Chicago drill music around 2012. I was pretty familiar with G Herbo’s name at the time (the real ones remember when he went by Lil’ Herb), but Welcome to Fazoland solidified my appreciation for G Herbo and his artistry. One of the main things I admire about G Herbo is that he acknowledges where he came from in his music, and always pays tribute to his friends who have passed away, which is evident on songs like Write Your Name and Fight or Flight. G Herbo also acknowledges his wrongdoings on Momma I’m Sorry, which serves as his apology to his mother. One thing I look for in an album is a good intro track, and G Herbo did not disappoint when it came to At The Light.
I also want to add you were 100% not outside if you didn’t and still don’t know all the lyrics to G Herbo x Lil Bibby collab Kill Shit.
Those who know me should have definitely expected to see at least one Young Thug project on this list. When the public got familiar with Young Thug through songs like Stoner, Lifestyle, and Danny Glover; he and many other rappers got labeled as “mumble rappers” which would eventually become a category of its own. Barter 6 gave me a new perspective of mumble rap, because when the term was first coined there was a somewhat negative connotation behind it. Over time, many have realized that what Young Thug does with his voice is so sonically pleasing, and even linguists have joined that conversation. While I could go on for ages about Young Thug and this album, I’ll sum up this album’s influence by saying that it: 1- reeled me into the “mumble rap” wave and 2- introduced me to a style of rapping that I’d eventually become a fan of other rappers for. If I had to pick my top 5 songs from this album I would have to go with With That, Check, Dream, Halftime, and Knocked Off.
Drip Season 3
Drip Season 3 was the first album I heard from Atlanta-based rapper Gunna, which was suggested to me by a friend who knew how big of a Young Thug fan I was. Gunna released this mixtape under Young Thug’s record label YSL (Young Stoner Life), and Young Thug’s influence was very apparent on this project. Oh Okay, which is essentially the main reason I decided to include this mixtape, features Young Thug and fellow Young Thug affiliate Lil Baby. This specific song showed how influential the mumble rap era was on music, and I even tell people how during my first listen I didn’t even realize when Lil Baby was rapping because he and Young Thug sounded so much alike. However, Gunna (and Lil Baby) both took this style of rapping, and developed their own individual styles from it and made their own lanes. While Oh Okay is one of my favorite songs on Drip Season 3, I can’t go on without acknowledging the masterpiece that is Top Off. This mixtape also had a good amount of features including Lil Uzi Vert and Young Jordan on At The Hotel, Nav, who is featured on Car Sick, and Young Thug who appears again on King Kong. It’s very obvious that Gunna has grown as an artist when it comes to his recent projects like Wunna, but Gunna stays true to his Drip Season foundation.
One of the most recent albums that has influenced my taste in rap is definitely Maxo Kream’s Punken. Released mid-January of 2018, it was actually the first new album I listened to that year. When discussing good kid, m.A.A.d city I mentioned how I grew an appreciation for a good story in rap, and Maxo Kream’s storytelling abilities is one of the most admirable things to me when it comes to his craft. On Roaches, not only does he discuss his life growing up in Houston, TX, but he also discusses how Hurricane Harvey affected his life and family when it struck Texas and Louisiana in 2017. Another aspect of this album that stands out is the production and how effortlessly Maxo Kream flows on songs like Grannies, Capeesh (feat, Trippie Redd), and Pop Another– which was the first Maxo Kream song I ever listened to. Lastly, since I love a good introductory track, Work really solidified my appreciation for this album (shoutout to that beat change). Again, if the day ever comes that I had to list my all time favorite albums, Punken would definitely have its place on that list.
These albums are just scratching the surface when it comes to my taste in music. There are so many aspects and sub genres of rap music that I thoroughly enjoy, but these 15 albums set the blueprint for my taste in rap. Hopefully this introduces you to a different way to look at these albums or even puts you on to an album you may have never heard before.