Vinyl sales are enjoying a resurgence, and that’s great news for us listeners because it gives artists a great reason to continue to release their albums in the long-playing format. And, as any audiophile will tell you, vinyl provides a much more engaging listening experience than streaming, with a warmth and a fidelity that digital simply can’t deliver, especially when the record is being spun on a quality turntable.
Here’s a list — in no particular order — of ten must-have hip-hop LPs that showcase the best of the genre.
1. Donuts – J Dilla (2006)
The late hip-hop producer J Dilla created Donuts while suffering from ongoing health issues, recording 29 of these 31 tracks from his hospital bed. The project illuminated his keen ability to piece together a collection of chopped-up vocal and instrumental samples, pushing the outer limits of instrumental hip-hop and providing aspiring beatmakers with a blueprint on how to create something on their own. It also showed the depths of Dilla’s artistry and how he was able to express emotion without ever saying a word. A prime example is the track “Don’t Cry,” which sounds particularly inspiring on the 7-inch vinyl release. The song begins with an homage to ’60s soul crooners Blue Magic before shifting gears to show off Dilla’s modern approach with layered vocal and beat samples.
2. The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (1991)
In the opening moments of The Low End Theory, Quest rapper Q-Tip notes the parallels his father once made between hip-hop and bebop by calling out how things go in cycles. Along with fellow group members Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, he uses the next 48 minutes to intensify the connection between the two genres. With their acknowledgment of jazz and those who laid the groundwork — with a guest appearance from iconic jazz bassist Ron Carter — Tribe ultimately ushered in a fruitful era of jazz-influenced rap. This is especially notable on tracks like the double bass-led “Buggin’ Out,” the hopeful and forward-thinking “Vibes and Stuff” and the hip-hop classic “Scenario.”
3. Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde – The Pharcyde (1992)
Following A Tribe Called Quest’s lead, The Pharcyde emerged as one of the first West Coast rap groups with a jazz aesthetic. This was their debut cypher-style album, framed by uninhibited, comedic storytelling. Mostly produced by J-Swift, Bizarre Ride II sees the four MCs — Imani, Bootie Brown, Slimkid3 and Fatlip — shooting the breeze as they recount past adventures and misdeeds, all while lobbing “Yo Mama” jokes at the listener. The group’s high energy is enough to keep you hooked, but the layered use of sound effects, sampled instruments, record scratches and drum grooves (check out “Officer”) offers a rich and deeply textured listening experience. The album also includes one of the group’s biggest hits, “Passin’ Me By.”
4. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill (1998)
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill signaled Hill’s deep plunge into her identity as she broached a number of themes, including heartbreak, motherhood, oppression and spirituality. This was her solo debut following Fugees’ disbanding, where she coupled her sublime vocals and heady raps with a discerning blend of hip-hop, R&B, reggae and pop. Miseducation remains a juggernaut to this day, an album teeming with real-world vignettes and sharp prose that peaked at No. 1 on multiple charts, went multi-platinum, and landed Hill five Grammys. Highlights include guest appearances by Carlos Santana (“To Zion”) and Mary J. Blige (“I Used to Love Him”), as well as one of her biggest hits, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” a crisp merging of horns, piano, and classic vocal stylings that really pop when you listen on vinyl.
5. Madvillainy – Madvillain (2004)
MF DOOM and Madlib make up Madvillain, with this, their only album, often touted as the crème de la crème of DOOM’s catalog. The 22-song project — largely comprised of tracks that clock in at around the two-minute mark — takes the listener on a surreal madcap ride through deeply dug samples that establish shapeshifting grooves. “Accordion,” for example, is built upon a dreamlike foundation, while “Bistro” incorporates harp, strings and a sampled voice that bounces between left and right speakers — an effect that really comes to life on vinyl. The closing song, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” even offers a lyrical nod to fans’ frenetic anticipation for the album, when unfinished bootlegs surfaced before Madvillainy’s arrival.
6. Supa Dupa Fly – Missy Elliott (1997)
Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott’s debut album Supa Dupa Fly lives in near-myth, a record she and childhood friend Timbaland created in just two weeks. Though she was an established songwriter, Missy didn’t intend to become a solo artist, but this seminal album showed her unquestionable talent as a vocalist and musical visionary. And while it arrived around the same time as influential works from 2Pac, Biggie, Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Lil’ Kim and more, Supa Dupa Fly stood out for its snapping bass, grandiose horns, boom-bap beats and raw electric energy, which meld into a cohesive and compelling sound on vinyl. Standout tracks include “Beep Me 911,” “Sock It 2 Me (feat. Da Brat)” and “Izzy Izzy Ahh.”
7. Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) – Digable Planets (1993)
Digable Planets filters their jazz and funk-laden hip-hop through an intuitive flair for world-building. With Reachin’, the MC trio — Butterfly, Ladybug Mecca and Doodlebug — focuses on the minutiae of New York, setting their magical realm against a backdrop of an ever-moving place, resulting in an album defined by its free-spirited lack of overanalyzing. One track that represents this mood perfectly is “Pacifics (Sdtrk “N.Y. Is Red Hot”),” which makes powerful use of percussion elements like a repeating pitched bell hitting twice every measure and a percussive synthesizer that takes over towards the end of the track, bouncing between the speakers as the other parts fade away.
8. Whack World – Tierra Whack (2018)
Composed of 15 one-minute songs, Tierra Whack’s intricate and dreamlike debut swarms with imagination, as she briefly replaces our realities with her own. While the tracks cycle through themes like death, self-care, grief and insecurities, we’re given a moment to quickly reflect before she moves on, though it isn’t nearly long enough. Between Tierra’s lyrical agility, captivating hooks and kaleidoscopic melodies, there’s a lot to digest in Whack World, and the album’s brevity (which allowed it to be cut LOUD) makes it an especially captivating listen on vinyl.
9. Laila’s Wisdom – Rapsody (2017)
Laila’s Wisdom was framed as a dedication to Rapsody’s late maternal grandmother, Laila, but also to the rapper’s outlook as a modern Black woman, addressing subjects like police brutality, social media, toxic love and more. It took two years to meticulously craft this record, and it shows, in the carefully curated, high-profile features starring Kendrick Lamar, Black Thought and others — and in the consummate blend of soulful samples (“Pay Up”) and luminous instrumentation (“Nobody”), largely handled by Rapsody’s mentor, 9th Wonder.
10. Telefone – Noname (2016)
Prior to the arrival of Noname’s debut mixtape Telefone, we only caught glimpses of the Chicago rapper’s flair for spoken word lyricism on her guest spots with Chance the Rapper, Saba and Mick Jenkins. But here, Noname fully unravels her joy and grief as she gives the listener an intimate look at her hometown. This is a recording that hinges on tender pianos, xylophones, wind instruments and Noname’s often somber wordplay, all of which coalesce on vinyl for a hypnotizing listen.
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