Top 10 hip hop albums of 1996

By Anton Constantinou

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Looking ahead to next year, we’ve already given you 5 rising stars to follow and 5 producers to keep an eye on. But what else does 2016 hold in store for hip hop? Well, come January, it will have been exactly 20 years since 1996: a year many regard as hip hop’s most game changing yet.

1996 is important for a number of reasons: 2pac’s death,  Jay Z’s arrival; Dre’s dramatic departure from Death Row records. This is when the east coast- west coast rivalry was at its most violent. As documented at the 1995 Source Music awards, competitor labels, Bad Boy and Death Row were now bitter adversaries, fueled by money, greed, testosterone and a steadfast determination to get one up on each other by all means necessary.

With the battle continuing to brew away that following year,  diss raps began to fire back and forth at the speed of a missile, exacerbating what Vibe Magazine called, ” a tale of badboys and badmen”.

Vibe Magazine, 1996

2pac alone singlehandedly took on Big, Nas, Mobb Deep and Jay Z, with the tracks Hit Em Up, Bomb First and Against All Odds; Mobb retaliated with the cryptically written, Drop Gem On ‘Em– released the very same month as Pac’s death-; Nas, with a Pac diss of his very own.

For all its conflict and controversy though, 1996 was also the year which launched the careers of many big rappers we know today. Try as we may though to condense this complex chapter into a single article,  we’ll inevitably only end up skimming the surface. Rather than attempt the impossible, we’ve instead decided to share with you a list our favourite records dropped that year. In no particular order, here are the top 10 hip hop albums of 1996:

10.) Dre Dre- Dr Dre Presents The Aftermath  

The best career move Dre ever made- bar signing over the rights beats headphones to Apple in a multi million pound deal- was deciding to leave Death Row Records. Lets be honest,  Suge wanted him out, and with Pac’s death arousing so many suspicions in the gangster rap community, it was best kept he kept his distance.So instead he set up his own label: Aftermath. The same label which would later come feature Eminem, 50 cent and Kendrick Lamar. Dre Presents The Aftermath is the record which got the ball rolling.

It’s essentially one big compilation album with a tonne of rappers from either coasts featured on it. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which Dre is going to war on this album- giving the number of heads on board and a whole fire themed cover art.On the other hand, it’s like he’s seeking a peace treatyEast Coast, West Coast, Killas for one unifies people like Nas and RBX, who, in the heat what was going on, might never have made eye contact, let alone worked together. And then there’s the rnb joints like, Choices and Please, which give off sort of quiet after storm feel. However you intepret it, and irrespective of the mixed reviews it’s had, this was a big release for Dre.

9.) Heltah Skeltah- Nocturnal

In a year largely dominated by west coast rap, Heltah Skeltah again gave the east something shout home about. As the album name suggests, this is soundtrack for the night owls among us. It packs grimy beats, dark subject matter and a truly terrifying voice in the form of Ruck.

The other half of the group is Sean Price: a much loved New York emcee who died last August under unknown circumstances. Price embodied peak era Brooklyn rap at its most rugged.

Nocturnal was a much welcome return to hardcore hip hop, which despite poor commercial success, still managed to bag 4/5.stars in The Source.

8.) Jay Z- Reasonable Doubt

Many feared east coast rap had lost its hunger by 96. Until Jay Z came along that is. If there’s any reasonable doubt to found then it’s certainly not on Jiggaman’s debut album: it’s impact and influence are without question.

After peaking at 23 on the Billboard 200 charts the album went on to be certified platinum and is now considered a “undisputed classic”.  Giving Big a run for his money, Jay too adopted a mafioso rap persona on Reasonable Doubt: themes like the hustler lifestyle and material obsessions  account for most of the subject matter on the album.  The four  big singles from it are, Dead Presidents, Feelin’ it, Can’t Knock The Hustle and Ain’t No Nigga.

7.) Eminem- Infinite

No, Eminem didn’t first emerge in 1999 with The Real Slim Shady. Contrary to popular belief, his debut  album was in fact The Infinite– which arrived three years earlier.

Unlike a lot of his later work,  Slim gives us personal struggles minus the lewd imagery. Themes include raising his newborn daughter on a limited budget to getting rich. As he himself recalls, “infinite was me trying to figure out how I wanted my rap style to be, how I wanted to sound on the mic and present myself. It was a growing stage”. 

6.) Ras Kass- Soul on Ice

Another debut release- this time over on the west coast. Ras Kass went in hard on this one. The title track alone is proof enough of  his lyrical ability, irrespective the album’s lacklustre production.

Also featured on the album is Coolio- who appears on the song , Drama.  Following its release, Source Magazine labelled Ras Kass, “the West Coast’s answer to Nas”. For a world history lesson on the world from the Afrocentric perspective, peep, Nature of The Threat. You won’t be disappointed.

5.) The Roots- Illadelph Halflife

In our opinion, the best album The Roots ever dropped. Illadelph Halflife saw the group taking on a tougher more broader sound then previous releases, this time working in guest contributions from both rnb and jazz musicians. Lead Rapper, Black Thought, talks politics, fidelity and responsibility; he even throws in  a few anti gangster taunts and tirades.

This is socially conscious rap at it’s finest. Source magazine gave it 4 1/2/5; Spin magazine 9/10. For The Philadelphia Enquiry, Illadelph Halflife “reaffirms just how far-reaching (and how far removed from the gangsta stereotype) hip-hop can be”

4.) Skillz- From Where???

In a year dominated by big scale commercial releases, underground hip hop artist, Skillz (formally Mad Skillz) was able to turn the attention back to good ole’ boom bap.

Despite it’s low sales,  From Where??? was celebrated for it’s strong lyrical content and production. In fact, it contains some of the hardest bars of the decade.

Producers on board included, Buckwild, The Beanuts, Large Professor and Jay Dee. If there’s one album from 96 that’s slept on, it’s this!

3.) Busta Rhymes- The Coming

Enter Busta Bust: hip hop’s very own court jester. His platinum selling solo album was unlike anything ever dropped before, full of outlandish lyrics and crazy rhyme schemes, with equally mind boggling music videos to accompany.

Prior to it’s release, Busta found fame as a member of the native tongues affliate group, Leaders of The School,  where he came to feature of such tracks as Scenario and Oh My God.  Good job he decided to go it alone.

For us, the best track on The Coming is still the lead single,  Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check . It encapsulates everything that’s brilliant about Busta Rhymes.

2.)Fugees- The Score

The second and final lp from one of the baddest trio’s in the business. The Fugees helped to pioneer an alternative sound which dominated much of the mid to late 90’s hip hop scene.

Included on the album are the classics, Fu-Gee-La, Killing Me Softly, Ready or Not and No Woman No Cry. Shortly after it’s release, The Score was certified six times platinum in sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. It’s also been ranked among Rolling Stone Magazine’s,  500 greatest albums of all time.

1.) 2pac- All Eyez on Me

Pac’s biggest record to date. All Eyez On Me made waves as the first ever double-full length hip hop solo album of it’s kind. It features the billboard hot number 100 singles How Do you Want It and California love, along with other bangers like, 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted, All About You and Heartz Of Men.

In 1997 the album won Soul Train R&B/Soul or Rap Album of the Year Award. Off the back of it, Pac was also named Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist at the 24th Annual American Music Awards.

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